Study: Side Air Bags Saving Drivers' Lives
Side-Impact Deaths Drop 37 Percent With Side Air Bags

POSTED: 1:02 pm EDT October 5, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Driver deaths in side-impact collisions dropped by more than half in sport utility vehicles equipped with head-protecting side air bags, insurance industry research shows.

Side air bags offering head protection could save the lives of about 2,000 drivers a year if every vehicle on the road had the equipment, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated in a study released Thursday.

While the benefits for SUVs with head-protecting air bags were higher, the study found the risk of death dropped 30 percent in side collisions involving SUVs with side air bags that only offer protection to the chest and abdomen.

In passenger cars struck on the driver's side, the risk of a driver being killed declined 37 percent in vehicles with side air bags offering head protection, and fell 26 percent for cars with side air bags providing chest and abdomen protection.

"We found lower fatality risks across the board - among older and younger drivers, male and female drivers, and drivers of both small cars and larger passenger vehicles," said Anne McCartt, the institute's vice president who authored the study.

First introduced on vehicles in the mid-1990s, side air bags are credited with helping motorists escape serious injuries and death when struck along the vehicle's doors. While a head-on crash allows the vehicle's front-end structure to absorb much of the impact, there's little protection for a motorist struck in the side without the air bags.

Side-impact crashes continue to be a concern for auto safety advocates. In 2004, the government estimated that 9,270 people were killed in side crashes, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all traffic deaths.

Automakers pledged in 2003 to install side air bags as standard equipment by the 2010 model year and many vehicles currently offer the protection. About four out of every five new cars and SUVs have head-protecting side air bags as standard or optional equipment.

The air bags typically cost between $500 to $700 as an option.

The study was based on federal crash data involving 1997-2004 model year cars involved in crashes from 1999-2004 and 2001-2004 sport utility vehicles involved in crashes from 2000-2004.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press.