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Advanced Air Bags Ahead of Schedule

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is requiring automobile manufactures to phase-in "advanced" or "smart" air bags for the 2004 model year. This will help reduce injures and deaths from airbag related mishaps and be a vehicle repair cost-savings. "Advanced" airbags will need to meet NHTSA’s requirements including technology that automatically determines if an adult or child is sitting in the front passenger seat and that the bags deploy in a manner that best suits the size of the passenger.

Some automobile manufactures have been working with NHTSA to develop and begin phasing in technologies long before they are required to. For example, Mercedes Benz began by introducing their "Baby Smart" system in their SLK coupe in 1997. It consists of a compatible set of "infant seat tags" that uses radio frequency to sense if a rear facing infant seat is in the car. If it detects a car seat, the air bag is automatically turned off. In order for the system to work a special child seat must be purchased.

Jaguar began using advanced technologies ("Adaptive Restraint Technology Systems") as standard equipment for their 2001 XK sports car series. Also staying ahead of the government’s requirements, General Motors recently announced that will install their "Passenger Sensing System" advanced airbag technology in select segments of their 2003 model year.

Problems with Standard Air Bags

Most air bag injures and deaths involve adults and children who are improperly positioned in the passenger seats of automobiles. Unbelted passengers are likely to move forward during hard braking conditions, putting them too close to the air bag. The energy required to inflate the airbags can cause serious head injuries.

Children represent the largest group of persons suffering injuries and deaths from inflating airbags. Many of these result when an infants are riding in the front seat in a rear-facing restraint. This puts the child’s head too close to the path of an inflating airbag. The force of the inflating airbag can cause serious if not fatal head injuries. Other children hurt or killed were found to be either improperly belted, or unbelted. These conditions put them in a compromising position where they suffer the full force of an inflating airbag.

The only time airbags can be considered "safe" is when passengers are positioned properly by a seatbelt, keeping them away from the bag when that initial millisecond of force necessary to open the bag is applied. This force must be dissipated to a less hazardous level before it reaches the passenger. To date this can achieved only if the passenger is belted, or if new technologies are introduced. The NHTSA and contributing automobile manufactures are working towards making the driving experience safer by advertising the "buckle-up" message though various medias and incorporating new airbag technologies.

Employing New Airbag Technologies

The objective of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s airbag reform is clear. Their process involves researching and testing technologies that are already available and developing a system that incorporates the best features. For example, a system has to automatically distinguish if the passenger in the front seat is an infant sitting a car seat, a child, an unbuckled adult, or a buckled adult. It needs to be able to deploy the airbag differently in each one of those circumstances in order to reduce the risk of injury.

There are several seasoned suppliers of advanced occupant protection systems that could provide the administration analysts some insight. NHTSA did contact some of those supplies, and three major domestic automobile manufactures including Ford, General Motors and Chrysler for information and help.

One supplier that develops after market safety products, Delphi, develops "Recognition: Passive Occupant Detection System." It consists of a sensor and electronics control unit that can be configured to fit in most car seats. The information from the system is processed and sent to a module located in the passenger compartment that regulates the airbag deployment based on weight thresholds. Their brochure lists several consumer benefits including that their product is:

Delphi products can be used in most cars. For more information about their products visit them at www.delphi.com.

General Motors is moving forward, a full year ahead of NHTSA’s requirement. The auto giant plans on installing their "Passenger Sensing System" in about 1.6 million GM full size pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles in 2003 (GM.com, 10/30/02). The features of their new system is parallel with the high level descriptions in NHTSA’s Phase III, which are consistent with the benefits that Delphi lists.

Robert Sinclair, Jr. of the Automobile Club of New York says that the "coming technology uses various types of sensors to be able to identify the weight of the person that might be in that seat and were or not you are using a child safety seat, [it] is a much more advanced step."

The technology is able to regulate the airbag based on the information the system receives from electronic sensors located in the seat. The sensor’s output is proportional to the weight on the seat. GM’s "Passenger Sensing System involves two separate sensors, one in the seat cushion and one in the seatbelt" says Bob Lange, safety director, General Motors. " The output from those two systems is actually combined in a computer mechanism that can then make a decision about airbag deployment." The system could be used to automatically turn-off the passenger side airbag when a child is in the seat. The system could also choose deployments based on other variables including whether or not a passenger is wearing a seat belt in order to tailor inflation levels and maximize protection. A seat pad being used by Mercedes prevents the air bag from opening in a collision if it senses that the front passenger seat is unoccupied. This is a cost-effective measure considering the price of airbags and maintenance.

Where is the Safest Place for Infants and Older Children?

The safest place in a car for infants and all other children is the back of the car, correctly placed in a proper and age and size appropriate car seat. This has always been the case, before the advent of airbags; and this will still hold true after all cars are equipped with "advanced airbag technologies."

Be sure the child’s car seat is properly secured in your vehicle’s back seat following the manufacture’s recommendations. In most cases, after-market child seats are strapped to the rear seat using the adult safety belt. Some automobile manufactures offer built-in child restraints in the back of their cars. The back has been found to be the safest for children of all ages.