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Status Report, Vol. 39, No. 9 | September 13, 2004 Subscribe

Consumers get new information on side airbags with reduced injury risk

A voluntary agreement among automakers to test side airbags, using a set of performance requirements, is helping to assure that these features won't injure children and out-of-position occupants in crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is identifying vehicle models with side airbags that meet the specifications of the agreement.

About 60 percent of 2004 model passenger vehicles with side airbags now meet the agreement. These vehicles are recognized in NHTSA's consumer guide, "Buying a Safer Car."

The performance specifications were developed to ensure that hazards similar to those that have been associated with frontal airbags wouldn't also compromise the occupant protection benefits of side airbags. More than 240 deaths, including many unrestrained or out-of-position children and infants, have been attributed to the inflation of frontal airbags in crashes that otherwise would have been minor (see "Evidence mounts that reducing force of airbag inflation lowers risk," Aug. 1, 2004).

In 1999 then-NHTSA administrator Ricardo Martinez challenged the auto industry to develop test procedures to assess the injury risks from side airbags (see "Experts to assess possible risk to kids from newest airbags," Oct. 2, 1999). In response, the industry convened a technical working group of safety experts representing the automobile manufacturers, restraint suppliers, and researchers with expertise in crash testing. This group developed tests to assess the potential injury risks. Airbags that pass these tests don't pose significant injury risks, even to small children and adults.

Auto manufacturers volunteered to conduct tests with dummies in positions where inflating side airbags might pose a hazard to children and out-of-position occupants in real-world crashes. Airbags that pass these tests don't pose any significant risks.

Specifications of the tests

The agreement specifies the types of tests, dummies, positions, and injury measure thresholds to be used to verify that the side airbags in new vehicles meet the performance requirements. Under the agreement, tests are conducted with dummies representing a 3 year-old, a 6 year-old, and a small woman. Occupants of these sizes are thought to be the most vulnerable to injuries when they're out of position in their vehicles.

The tests are conducted with the dummies in a variety of positions, including unlikely ones for real people in real vehicles. These positions were chosen to reflect worst cases — for example, where a child might lie down and go to sleep in a vehicle — and to measure what happens when the dummies are subjected to the full force of deploying airbags. Target measures from the dummies are low enough to assure that, even among people riding out of position in their vehicles, the risk of serious injury is low.

"Real-world experience indicates that the risk is, indeed, very low," says Adrian Lund, Institute chief operating officer and chairman of the group that produced the requirements. "There have been no deaths from inflating side airbags, and since 1999 there has been only one confirmed case of significant injuries potentially caused by a side airbag. These were rib fractures sustained by an elderly driver."

What the agreement does, Lund adds, "is to standardize test procedures for side airbags and ensure they're in place to keep the risk very low. This is important as more and more cars are equipped with side airbags."

Automakers developed and implemented the voluntary test procedures faster than would have been possible under the federal regulatory process. The procedures were delivered to NHTSA in just 15 months, while federal rulemaking typically takes years and then phases in over time.

Agreement serves as a model

A copy of the agreement, under which all automakers pledge to design airbags for new vehicles according to the recommendations, was submitted to NHTSA in August 2000. This initiative marks the first time auto manufacturers voluntarily agreed to meet safety performance targets.

Based on the success of this approach, current NHTSA administrator Jeffrey Runge more recently challenged automakers to address the issue of SUV incompatibility. He asked for this voluntary initiative even as the agency was pursuing its own rulemaking activity and research. In less than a year, automakers brought an agreement to Runge to address vehicle incompatibilities in front and side crashes (see "Automakers pledge series of steps to improve crash compatibility," Jan. 3, 2004).

Consumers access the information

Once automakers submitted the agreement on side airbag testing in 2000, NHTSA began to seek ways to hold the manufacturers accountable for their commitments and to alert consumers to the benefits of choosing passenger vehicles with airbags in compliance with the agreement.

Runge characterizes this agreement as "a very positive step forward to ensure the safety of side airbags. But to be effective, automakers must adhere to the agreement, and the public should be confident that any vehicle they purchase will have airbags that meet those requirements. NHTSA will do its duty to encourage compliance by making the information public on its website and testing vehicles to ensure that the information we publish is correct."

NHTSA tests vehicles on a random basis to determine whether those the manufacturers say are in compliance do, in fact, meet the agreement. An automaker who wants the agency to identify one of its vehicles as meeting the agreement must submit test data to NHTSA for each side airbag in the vehicle model. If all side airbags in a model meet the test specifications, then NHTSA will distinguish that vehicle model with an "M" for "Meets" in the crash test results section of "Buying a Safer Car."

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