By on January 19, 2011

Side head and torso airbags have greatly boosted driver safety in left-side impact crashes, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Side bags alone can make the difference between a “poor” result, and a “good” result, as they do in the case of the 2003 Accord, although structural integrity is also very important. Drivers in cars with a good rating were 70 percent less likely to die in such a crash than drivers in cars rated poor. Drivers of vehicles rated “acceptable” and “marginal” are 64 percent and 49 percent less likely to die in such crashes than drivers of poor-rated cars, respectively.

The study is the most recent in a series the IIHS undertook in 2004 to nudge manufacturers towards improving side impact safety. Has it worked? “The answer is a resounding yes,” says David Zuby, the Institute’s chief research officer. Zuby credits the agency’s rating system for pushing the manufacturers towards side head and torso bags, as well as strong side structures, which have also been very important in improving side impact safety. Currently, 78 percent of vehicle designs that have been tested by IIHS have good side ratings, compared with only about one third of vehicles tested during the program’s first two years.

Some winners: ’07-’09 Prius, Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, and Honda Accord (all good).

Some losers: PT Cruiser (poor), BMW 3 series convertible (marginal), VW Beetle (poor), and the previous generation Maxima (marginal).

Twenty-seven percent of all in vehicle traffic deaths in 2009—6,362– were caused by side impacts.

In the Institutes test, a vehicle is hit on the driver side by a deformable barrier weighing 3,300 lbs and traveling at 31 mph. The barrier’s height and shape are designed like the front of a typical SUV or pickup.

Overall safety ratings here:

Press release and study here:

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18 Comments on “IIHS Documents Link Between Side Crash Results, Fatalities...”

  • avatar

    Is the story here the linkage between the ratings and the fatalities, or the quantification of the relationship?  The former is obvious, the latter is interesting.

  • avatar

    Good to know. Until now, I have just sort of assumed that the real safety boost comes from the front bags, and that all the rest is 90% marketing one upmanship.

  • avatar

    I worked in insurance claims for a few years, and my wife’s been doing it for 12 years.  Side impacts are no joke-it didn’t take long to realize that side impact collisions resulted in serious injuries and fatalities at a much higher rate than every other type of collision.  Side impact airbags are a great invention.

  • avatar

    It’s important when shopping for used cars in the ’02-’06 range to check that side airbags are there. They didn’t really start becoming standard in mainstream cars until around ’07.

  • avatar

    There is a new test where a car crashes sideways into a pole. The pole is a more concentrated force and will do more damage.
    Please look at my website to see my auto safety bumper invention which will reduce g forces.

  • avatar

    Just looked up the VW Beetle…. appears to be avg to better than avg. for medical claims paid by the insurance company.  I guess the rest simply died in side collisions.
    My Accord has a warning label not to lean on the doors.  Does this mean I must keep upright, hands at 9 and 3 in preparation for a collision?  After riding in the back of a ’51 Chevy pickup when a kid, and surviving such peril, will I somehow be killed by my airbags?  *joke*

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve wondered myself what happens if you’ve got the window open and your arm on the sill when the airbag goes off. IIRC, they usually deploy from the top, so I guess you might end up with a bad arm, but it wouldn’t be the airbag that did it.
      Of course, in most newer cars, you’d have to dislocate your shoulder before you could get your arm up there anyway, so it’s kind of a moot point.

    • 0 avatar

      Though it may not be the primary reason for high door sills, wide consoles and more limited tilt steering adjustment, having the driver confined to a narrow space might make it easier to design and test for safety since there are far fewer variables of human body position than in a cabin with lots of room.

  • avatar

    Chevrolet has a tall stack of Powerpoints proving that leaving out the little pieces of tin that tie the B-pillar into the roof and floor pan that are required for the Cruze to pass the side crash tests, when left out of cars destined for sale in areas lacking side crash standards, will ultimately be what saves all of General Motors from ruin.

  • avatar

    Ever notice how for years the NHTSA ratings never included a PT Cruiser side impact?

    • 0 avatar

      I may be wrong, but I’m almost certain the PT came before the side impact test was required. It’s a 10 year-old design, fella. It’s going to do “badly” today.
      What I’m most concerned about this “2010 PT Cruiser” is that this is NOT a 2010 car. I thought they had to test all trim levels available for sale? In 2010– the PT was only offered in Classic(it used to be called Limited) trims, and this is a base LX car they’re crashing.

  • avatar

    No doubt the side impact bags are important due to the small distance between the point of impact and the occupants.
    On the other hand, keeping the armrests out of the way of the bags has resulted in side door armrests becoming vestigal shallow scoops with a completely marginal and non-ergonomic “shelf” for the elbow.  As compared to the big wide flat comfy armrests in ’80’s cars.
    Our current generation Grand Vitara has warnings not to lean against the doors, such as if a child falls asleep in the back seats.  Seems like a bit of an intrusion on the enjoyment of the vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      Our current generation Grand Vitara has warnings not to lean against the doors, such as if a child falls asleep in the back seats.  Seems like a bit of an intrusion on the enjoyment of the vehicle.
      I know!  F them for wanting to keep your child alive.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember deciding not to sleep tipped over onto the middle of the rear seat on long trips, due to the potential negative consequences in an accident, when I was eight. Of course, I was kind of a strange kid…
      Before someone leaps in, no, I wasn’t paranoid, just thoughtful about that kind of thing. I lived right near our family business, which involved a machine shop, earth moving equipment, and lots of other assorted industrial things, so I learned early to consider my environment and be aware of my surroundings. Which meant that my parents always trusted me to hang around bulldozers and machine tools and acetylene torches – it was awesome!

  • avatar

    The interesting aspect of the IIHS side impact testing is that it tests all vehicles against being T-boned by a common SUV/pickup, whereas the front impact testing is still only relative to the size and mass of the vehicle being tested.
    Obviously we can reach a point where we add another $500 in per vehicle costs to save an estimated 5 lives a year. This would be money well spent to those five people, but maybe not so much for the other 100,000 buyers of the car.
    Could go off on a rant here about how the current NHTSA guy apparently doesn’t want any of us to do our own driving, but let’s save that for another time.

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t pay extra for front airbags if I had the option, but I would pay extra for side airbags.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Interesting because I’m reminded of the cars GM delivered to one of the rental fleets with the “standard” side airbags deleted as per the sales contract.  Then when the rental company started selling the used cars, some had a field day sniping at GM. 

    • 0 avatar

      Hopefully this vid of 2 cars crashing into each other at a ‘mere’ 40mph each will change your mind about airbags and how they can stop your head from plowing into the steering wheel.
      This vid allows you a driver`s view of what it`s like to crash into another car going at the same 60 mph as you are. They are older cars, but the expert assures us that the results in a modern car at that speed would be the same!

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