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From Products Liability Law Daily, February 10, 2014

Curtain and side air bags reduce fatalities in near-side impacts, report finds

By Joe Bichl

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is seeking public comment on a recently published technical report evaluating the fatality-reducing effectiveness of curtain and side air bags in the front seats of passenger cars and light trucks and vans (LTVs). The report, entitled “Updated Estimates of Fatality Reduction by Curtain and Side Air Bags in Side Impacts and Preliminary Analyses of Rollover Curtains,” found that curtain and side air bags significantly reduced fatalities in near-side impacts for drivers and right-front passengers of cars and LTVs. The report updates NHTSA’s preliminary evaluation of curtain and side air bags, issued in 2007. Comments must be received no later than June 10, 2014 (NHTSA Notice79 FR 7739, February 10, 2014).

Background. Curtain and side air bags are designed to protect occupants in near-side impacts, those to the sides of vehicles adjacent to where the occupants are seated. Four major types of curtain and/or side air bags have been available in the United States since 1996. However, by model year 2011, 85 percent of new cars and LTVs were equipped with curtains plus torso bags for drivers and right-front passengers. Curtains that deploy in rollover crashes began to appear in 2002; and by 2011, about 45 percent of new cars and LTVs were equipped with such curtains.

Report findings. According to the report, analyses of fatality analysis reporting system data through calendar year 2011 show statistically significant fatality reductions for all four types of curtain and side air bags in near-side impacts for drivers and right-front passengers of cars and LTVs: curtains plus torso bags, 31.3 percent; combination head/torso bags, 24.8 percent; curtains only, 16.4 percent; and torso bags only, 7.8 percent.

Corresponding analyses of far-side impacts do not show corresponding, large benefits for curtain or side air bags, the report determined. Curtains that deploy in rollover crashes show a statistically significant effect in first-event rollovers: the estimated fatality reduction is 41.3 percent. The agency suggested that analyses should be repeated in three or four years, when more data is available.

In 2007, NHTSA upgraded FMVSS No. 214, “Side impact protection” by adding a crash test of a 20 mph side impact with a pole, at a 75-degree angle (72 FR 51908). The agency anticipated that head-protection air bags such as curtains or combination bags generally would be installed to meet the new requirement. In 2011, NHTSA issued FMVSS No. 226, “Ejection mitigation” (76 FR 3212), anticipating that containment of the occupant would be achieved in many vehicles by curtains designed to deploy in rollovers.

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