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Soft Landing with New Airbag Technology

In the 16 years since driver and passenger frontal impact airbags became mandatory in passenger cars and light trucks built after September 1, 1998, airbag technology continues to be refined and, correspondingly, both relied upon and taken for granted as one of the most valuable components—along with seatbelts—of the safety systems for vehicle interiors.

Second-generation advanced frontal airbag systems have been mandatory in new vehicles since September 1, 2006. And on September 1, 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] in the United States phased in new side-impact standards requiring side airbags as standard equipment.

But even the most economic new sub-compacts now offer multiple airbag systems designed beyond the legally required specifications. Dual-stage and dual-depth airbags, knee airbags to protect a driver’s legs—the refinements keep coming. Traffic safety statisticians say that seatbelts and airbags in combination have reduced crash fatalities by 24% since the time when only seatbelts were used.

While early stage airbags reportedly caused the deaths of 291 people since 1990, the NHTSA also estimates that since 1998, airbags have saved nearly 28,000 people and that “using a seat belt and having an airbag reduces the risk of death by 61 percent. Simply put, this combination is the most basic and effective safety precaution available.” These days, if airbags fail to deploy when they should, such failure is considered a major defect and possible cause for a widespread recall by the vehicle manufacturer.

Innovators are finding creative ways to use the latest airbag technologies to protect the most vulnerable road users. Volvo has developed Pedestrian Airbag Technology that deploys an airbag on the outside of a vehicle when it hits a pedestrian. The external airbag is deployed from under the hood at the base of the front window to cover and cushion the hood and the area around the wiper recess and A-pillar, the areas most likely to cause severe head injury on impact.

In Sweden, two young industrial designers working on their masters degrees at the University of Lund, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, developed the concept of an airbag bicycle helmet that they now produce and sell through their company, Hovding. The Hovding website contains videos showing deployment of the airbag helmet in the various common types of cycling crashes. The airbag, made of an ultra-strong nylon fabric that won’t rip when scraped against the ground, is inside a zipped-on collar. When inflated, it covers much more of the head than a traditional cycle helmet while still leaving a vision field opening.

The Hovding website describes the airbag helmet as “like a hood” offering the greatest protection where it is needed most and providing “extremely soft and gentle shock absorption. The pressure remains constant for several seconds, making it able to withstand multiple head impacts during the same accident. After that the airbag slowly starts to deflate.”

External airbags to protect motorcyclists—typically to cushion the head and upper body areas that suffer the greatest injury from impact with the road are also being tested, refined and marketed.

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