Do Side Air Bags Really Protect You in a Crash?

How side and rollover air bags can decrease your odds of being killed.

Posted in News

— Curtain and side air bags were created to protect occupants in near-side impacts and have been available in the U.S. since 1996. By model year 2011, 85 percent of new cars and light trucks and vans (LTVs) were equipped with curtain plus torso bags for drivers and right-front passengers.

Air bags that deploy in rollover crashes began to appear in 2002 and by 2011 about 45 percent of new cars and LTVs were equipped with these bags.

Types of Side Air Bags

Curtain and side air bags protect an occupant’s head, torso, and pelvis in a near-side impact to the side of the vehicle nearest to where the occupant is seated.

Torso air bags are used as an energy-absorbing cushion between the torso and the vehicle’s side structure during side impacts. They usually are built into and deploy from the seat, although some might be built into the door.

Curtain air bags are built into the roof above the side window and deploy downward to cover the window area . They provide a cushion between the head and the vehicle interior and could help prevent ejection from the side window of the vehicle.

Combination air bags are torso bags that deploy outward from the seat and then quickly upward to protect the head but don't help much on the side.

Curtain plus torso bags provide the most side-impact protection. The curtains are separate from the torso bags, although they usually share the same components.

Rollover curtains can be a huge help in a rollover accident when the vehicle rolls just once. They have the possibility of protecting you if the vehicle rolls over twice, but the electrical system needs to still be functional after the initial impact.  A rollover air bag offers good protection because they can stay inflated for six seconds or more after they deploy.

Do Curtain and Side Air Bags Protect You?

Analyses of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data through year 2011 show statistically significant fatality reductions for curtain and side air bags in near-side impacts for drivers and right-front passengers of cars and LTVs.

Rollover air bags show an even greater ability to protect you in a rollover crash, at least when the vehicle rolls just one time.

Estimated Fatality Reduction in Near-Side Impacts

  • Rollover air bag: 41.3 percent fatality reduction
  • Curtain plus torso air bag: 31.3 percent fatality reduction
  • Combination air bag: 24.8 percent fatality reduction
  • Curtain only air bag: 16.4 percent fatality reduction
  • Torso only air bag: 7.8 percent fatality reduction

NHTSA is currently gathering information on any benefits of side air bags when a vehicle is hit on the opposite side of the passenger (far-side impacts.) So far there have been no large benefits seen for these types of accidents. More detailed studies will be possible as more data becomes available.