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There are a large number of organizations that provide automotive safety information to consumers, such as Consumer Guide [1] and most recently Edmunds [2].

However, there are a few things consumers should know about recent changes to airbag systems (both front and side):

Front Airbag Systems

All airbag technologies are not created equal. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently enacted a rule, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208 for Advanced Airbags (effective for all US vehicles manufactured beginning with model year 2006), and it requires all OEMs to install technology that detects front passengers based on a classification structure, e.g. Child Seat Restraint (rear or forward facing) versus adult. These systems better protect occupants from front airbag deployment injury.

To avoid front airbag deployment injury to children, they should always sit in the rear of the vehicle and be properly restrained in a seatbelt or Child Seat Restraint. FMVSS-208 does not alter the US government's laws on children riding in the rear of the vehicle.

In addition to protecting children from deploying front airbags, consumers should consider how front airbag deployment impacts small stature adults, including the aging population. Consumers should know what type of FMVSS-208 front airbag technology is in their vehicle (for model year 2006 and beyond). To find out the answer, request a vehicle brochure from the dealer or print one from the brand's website. Look for wording, such as "adaptive", "multi-stage", and "dual-stage" airbag system. These systems will not only deploy based on the occupant's classification, but also based on the speed of the crash.

Side Airbag Systems

Side impact crashes accounted for 23% (approx. 10,350) of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in 2003, according to NHTSA. Unfortunately, side airbags are not required by NHTSA. Installation and coverage is solely up to the discretion of the OEM.

So consumers should consider purchasing vehicles with "standard" side airbags/side curtain systems or purchasing the "optional" side airbags/side curtain systems. Avoid vehicles that do not offer side airbags. See Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for vehicles with side airbags [3]

Side airbags are successful in protecting occupants in rollovers, ejections and side impacts. Most recently, NHTSA required OEMs to improve side impact protection in FMVSS-214 (beginning phase-in with model year 2009). Protecting the occupant's head has become a serious concern. Fatal brain injuries are caused by vehicle intrusion, which is the main cause of death for occupants struck by a larger vehicle in a side impact crash.

The "side affect" to side airbags is the potential to injure miss-positioned or out-of-positioned occupants (especially children and small stature adults). Side airbags deploy close to the occupant. Slight miss-positioning from braking/evasive maneuvering or out-of-positioning from sleeping/leaning too close to the airbag can result in side airbag deployment injury.

The impact of a side airbag deploying into the head or neck region of a child or small stature adult can cause fatal injury to the spine.

Honda and Acura vehicles are the only vehicles sold in the US that control both the front airbag deployment (based occupant classification) and the side airbag deployment for children and small adults (based on occupant position). For more information, see Honda's safety site: [4]

For more information on occupant classification systems for front airbags and occupant position detection systems for [[Side Airbags|side airbags], or visit Elesys North America Inc.'s website for more information.[5]