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IIHS News | April 6, 1999Subscribe

Impressive crash test performance for vehicles with side airbags that also protect people's heads

ARLINGTON, Va. — For the first time, automakers are beginning to offer side airbags with head protection in more popular and less expensive passenger vehicles. Ford Motor Company rolled out its new side airbags for 1999 models, and crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrate the potential benefits of this safety technology in side impact crashes.

The Institute, in collaboration with Ford, conducted two crash tests of Lincoln Town Cars, a 1999 model in which the new side airbag with head protection is standard equipment and a 1998 model without a side airbag. In each test, the car was propelled sideways at 18 mph into a rigid pole. The pole is relatively narrow, so there was major penetration into the side of each car. In the impact without the side airbag, the crash dummy's head hit the pole with more than enough force to cause death in an actual collision. The head injury criterion was 5390, or more than five times the reference value (1000) used to indicate the likelihood of a serious head injury like a skull fracture. In contrast, the head injury criterion in the same crash test with a side airbag was 376, well below the injury reference value. Dummy injury measures also indicate the benefits of side airbags that protect the thorax. In the crash test of the Town Car with this technology, both the thoracic trauma index and lateral acceleration of the pelvis were reduced.

18 mph side-into-pole crash test results:
Lincoln Town Cars with and without side airbags
    Crash test results
Dummy injury measure Injury reference value SIDE AIRBAG:
1999 Town Car
1998 Town Car
Head injury criterion 1000 376 5390
Neck compression (kN) 4.0 0.2 6.4
TTI (g) 85 59 66
Pelvic lateral acceleration (g) 130 39 48
Lincoln Town car with side airbags Lincoln Town Car with side airbags

18 mph side-into-pole crash test: In a 1999 Lincoln Town Car with side airbag to protect the head and chest, the airbag kept the dummy’s head from striking the pole

"The side airbag with head protection makes this kind of crash survivable despite the severity," Institute president Brian O'Neill points out. "This airbag restraint system should protect people in a range of serious side impacts in which there's intrusion in the area near an occupant's head, including two-vehicle crashes. Side airbags of this type are relevant to the recent public concerns about crash compatibility among different types of vehicles. The most effective way to address compatibility problems is to upgrade side impact protection because these are the crashes in which incompatibility is most apparent. Ford is doing this with its new side airbag system."

Ford's side airbag with head protection deploys from a vehicle's seat, inflating forward and upward to cushion an occupant's head and chest. Initial inflation is away from the occupant, toward the vehicle's B-pillar and door. According to Ford's Priya Prasad, these airbags thus "are designed to minimize the risk of head, neck, and chest injuries to out-of-position occupants."

Overhead shot of a Lincoln Town Car

Overhead shot of a Lincoln Town Car after striking the pole in the side test

The 18 mph speed of the Institute's side-into-pole test "may not sound like one at which a crash could be serious," O'Neill says. "But a side impact into a fixed object at 18 mph is, in fact, very severe." The extensive intrusion into the Lincoln's occupant compartment from the crash test indicates the severity.

Because head injuries are a leading cause of death in side impacts, many automakers are developing airbags designed specifically to protect people's heads in these crashes. Ford isn't the first. Side airbags with head protection are in all BMWs and Saabs plus some Mercedes and Volvo models. But Ford is the first manufacturer to offer side airbags with head protection in some more popular and less expensive vehicles. This technology is standard or optional in 1999 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers (SUVs), Ford Windstar (passenger van), Mercury Cougar, Lincoln Continental and Town Car, and Jaguar XJ8 and X200. More Ford vehicles in model year 2000 also will offer side airbags with head protection: Ford Taurus and Focus (new), Lincoln LS (new), and Mercury Sable.

The federal government estimates that side airbags with head protection in all cars could prevent about 600 deaths from head injuries in crashes each year.

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