Frontal airbags (or driver and passenger front airbags) are standard in many new vehicles but they do not offer protection in a side impact crash. Side impact crashes at intersections form a significant proportion of all major crash types where people are killed or seriously injured. Head-protecting side airbags fitted in a vehicle with a four- or five-star safety rating provide you with the best chance of survival.
The result of a pole crash test on a five-star rated car. Image courtesy of Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).
Curtain airbags are designed to protect the heads of occupants in both front and rear seats closest to the sides of a vehicle. Deployed from the roof rail above the side windows, they remain inflated for a period of time in case the vehicle rolls over. They also offer some protection against broken glass or debris entering the cabin. Often, but not always, curtain airbags are fitted in combination with seat- or door-mounted torso airbags to protect the chest.
Combined head and torso airbags deploy from the outer edge of the seat or the door panel and are typically fitted to the front seats only. They offer good protection in the event of a side impact, but are less effective than curtain airbags in rollovers.
Torso airbags are sometimes fitted on their own and do not offer dedicated head protection. While less effective at reducing driver deaths compared with head-protecting side airbags, torso airbags offer a significant reduction in fatalities compared to vehicles with no side airbags.
Choosing side airbags
When selecting a side airbag system, aim for (in this order):
1. Roof-mounted curtain airbags plus seat- or door-mounted torso airbags (most comprehensive protection – includes rear seats but check that any in a third row are also protected).
2. Seat- or door-mounted combined head and torso airbags (good but generally not offered for rear seats).
3. Seat- or door-mounted torso airbags without dedicated head protection (less effective and generally not offered for rear seats).
How effective are side airbags?
Research by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety* estimates that head-protecting side airbags can reduce driver deaths in side impact crashes by 37%. If head-protecting airbags are not fitted in a vehicle, hard internal objects or external objects such as trees, poles or bonnets of high vehicles pose a significant threat to those inside. Torso airbags provide no dedicated head protection but still offer a 26% reduction in death and injuries compared with no side airbags.