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Evolution of Front Air Bags

Evolution of Front Air Bags

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012
Front air bags are something that many people may take for granted these days, but the air bags of today differ radically from those found in vehicles in 1996, the year in which front air bags became federally mandated on all passenger vehicles. What's more, depending on the make and model of your vehicle, you could have one of several different types of front air bags, all having different benefits and risks. Air bags are referred to as Supplemental Restraint Systems (SRS) because they supplement the primary restraint system, the seat belt.

The first air bags
First-generation air bags deployed with a much greater force than air bags of today, and it was realized very quickly that they could harm, and even kill, children and small adults, especially those not wearing seat belts. After a number of fatalities due to air bags, federal regulators changed the requirements to allow for "depowered" air bags, giving automakers the opportunity to reduce deployment force. These new requirements made air bags safer, while still providing additional protection beyond a seat belt.

Advanced air bags
As technology progressed, automakers began to develop methods to reduce the deployment power of air bags based on occupant size and position in the seat. By 2000, automakers began introducing "advanced," "smart," "dual-stage," or "multi-stage" air bags, which were designed to reduce risk to children and small adults.

Smart air bags either deploy with less force or not at all, depending on the occupant's weight, size, and seating position. Sensors, typically located in the seat and seat belts, send signals to the vehicle's computer indicating occupant weight and seating position in addition to whether the occupant was wearing a seat belt. In the event of a collision, the computer makes a split-second decision whether to deploy the air bag at full force, reduced force, or not at all.

Unfortunately, in the earliest versions of advanced air bags, the systems didn't always "sense" the occupant accurately, effectively fooling the computer. Some owners complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, that the passenger air bag sometimes deactivated when a small adult was in the seat or an occupant was out of position. Owners were alerted because of a warning light on the instrument panel indicating that the air bag was off. Fortunately, there were only a few reports of these issues, and since then, automakers have continued to improve these advanced systems, thus resolving the issues.

With changes in technology, NHTSA began researching ways to regulate air bags to provide the greatest benefits to vehicle occupants, while reducing the risk of injury from the air bag itself. The agency required automakers to install advanced front air bag systems for the driver and front passenger, which were to include sensors to detect the size of the occupant, the seating position, seat belt use, and the severity of the crash.
Advanced air bags were introduced on some models as early as 2000, and are required in all light-duty vehicles as of the 2006 model year. Approximately 20 percent of 2004 model-year vehicles have these advanced air bags; the figure is about 65 percent for 2005 model-year vehicles.
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