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Rollover Air Bags

Rollover Air Bags

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012
The latest trend in air bag technology is side air bags with rollover protection. These air bags are designed to help reduce occupant injury in several ways. First and foremost, they protect the heads of the driver or passengers from hitting the interior of the vehicle during a side-impact collision. In addition, they can help to reduce the intrusion of glass or other vehicle components, such as interior trim, into the occupant area. And, in some circumstances, they also can help to ensure that the occupant remains inside the vehicle during a severe collision or rollover accident.

Head curtain air bags can be either wide and thin (which covers the entire side window) or tubular designs. Both protect occupants' heads from hitting the windows or vehicle pillars, and the air bags typically deploy from the roofline and in a downward motion, covering most of the window, and in some cases, all of it. Not all curtain or tubular air bags offer rollover protection, however.

Currently, all new vehicles offered for sale in the United States are required to provide both driver and front passenger air bags as standard equipment. At this time, however, there are no similar requirements for side air bags. It's up to the individual automaker to decide whether to offer them on a particular model, and at what cost. Among the manufacturers that do offer side air bags, each one has a choice as to what type of air bags to use, where those air bags are located, and what seating positions they will protect. This means that automakers also determine whether these air bags will provide protection only for side impacts or also during a rollover.

Air bags that offer rollover protection are essentially the same air bags that offer head protection in a side impact, with two additional qualities. First, the air bag stays inflated longer to compensate for the extended time associated with a rollover collision. Second, a gyroscopic sensor under the vehicle determines whether the vehicle is about to roll over, even if a collision is not involved. (Ford says it was the first to offer side air bags with rollover protection when it introduced the technology on the 2002.5 Ford Explorer.) Air bags without rollover protection deflate quickly because a typical side impact lasts only about 60 milliseconds. A rollover, on the other hand, can last several seconds or more, thus requiring a longer period of time that the air bag needs to stay inflated.

The lack of mandatory federal requirements for side air bags also means that air bags with a rollover feature may not cover all rows of seating. While side air bags with head protection are available in about 38 percent of 2006 model-year vehicles, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org), only about one-half of the vehicles with three rows of seating have air bags that protect occupants in all three rows. And, not all of those vehicles have air bags that offer rollover protection. Many automakers are phasing in this rollover safety feature as they make other changes during the model life cycle.

To review vehicle safety ratings, visit the Autos section of this site or the IIHS Web site.
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