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Understanding Air Bags

Understanding Air Bags

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), frontal air bags are credited with saving 13,967 lives between 1987 and 2003. As a result of their effectiveness and generally positive publicity, air bags have been embraced by auto manufacturers and consumers alike; many automakers now offer side, side-curtain, and rear air bags in addition to frontal air bags. In fact, many new models have six or more air bags as standard safety equipment, mounted in the steering wheel, dashboard, seats, headliner, and even the window sills.

Frontal, side, and rear air bags
The earliest air bags were single units mounted in the hub of the steering wheel, and were later joined by air bags mounted in passenger-side dashboards-collectively referred to as "frontal" air bags. Frontal air bags protect passengers in forward-facing accidents (i.e., crash damage to the front of the vehicle), Air bags mounted in the side of the vehicle (whether seat-mounted, door-mounted, or integral to the vehicle's frame) are designed to protect passengers from side impacts or rollovers and, accordingly, are called "side" air bags. The front passengers in many late-model vehicles are protected by both frontal and side air bags. Since rear-seat occupants are most commonly injured by a side impact or rollover, they are only protected by side air bags designed specifically for the rear seat-commonly referred to as "rear" air bags.

Unlike the stringent regulations surrounding frontal air bags, the NHTSA does not regulate the design or placement of rear air bags themselves-they only regulate side-impact protection standards. Currently, automakers use voluntary testing standards to ensure rear air bag safety for passengers.

Side air bags vs. curtain air bags
Auto manufacturers use several different types of air bags to protect rear-seat passengers. The two most common designs are the side air bag and the "curtain" air bag (the name referring to their appearance as a large curtain when inflated).

Side, or torso-type, air bags inflate from the door panels or the outside of the seats to protect the torso of the outboard passengers. When inflated, these air bags look much like small pillows. Working in the same manner as frontal air bags, side air bags are engineered to rapidly inflate and then immediately deflate.

Curtain air bags, which are much larger than side air bags, deploy from the headliner and expand downward, covering the window to protect the passenger's head and upper body from the impact. These bags protect occupants in the front and rear seats. Curtain air bags are also installed in a number of vehicles with third-row seating, affording those passengers protection as well. This style of air bag is designed to rapidly inflate and remain inflated for up to six seconds, offering additional protection to restrain passengers from ejection in rollover-type crashes.

Children and rear air bags
Consumers have been educated about the dangers of children sitting behind front-seat air bags that can deploy with great force and injure small passengers. Unfortunately, the rates for injuries to children have caused undue apprehension about rear side air bags. After analyzing real-world crash data, the NHTSA has determined that children appear to be at no greater risk of injury in a vehicle equipped with rear side air bags than those without the safety feature.

Standard and optional equipment
Many automakers are making rear curtain air bags standard safety equipment in their new models. Side and torso-type air bags are frequently optional, giving new-vehicle shoppers the choice whether or not to purchase them for their vehicle (most standard rear side air bags can be deactivated by the dealership).

Regardless of the number of air bags your vehicle is equipped with, automotive safety begins with properly restraining all passengers. Children should be secured in age- and weight-appropriate car seats, while adults should wear seat belts. Complementing proper seat belt restraints with rear air bags-side or curtain-only increases passenger safety in the event of a side-impact collision or rollover.

For more information about air bags or vehicle-specific air bag information, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site,
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