Turn your back on the NHTSA for a minute, and look what happens: new regulations get passed that will (in theory) increase vehicle safety, and will certainly increase vehicle cost. NHTSA research shows that passenger ejections in rollover accidents generally happen through the first row windows, and in cases of first row ejections are fatal in 29% of accidents. Windshield ejections are the next most common, but these occur with much less frequency than side window ejections. When windshield ejections happen, they’re fatal in 37% of accidents. Simply wearing a seatbelt virtually eliminates the likelihood of ejection in all but the most severe accidents, but we can’t assume people will comply with seatbelt laws; hence, we need legislation to protect drivers from themselves.
By the end of 2013, new cars will need to have improved side curtain airbags and perhaps even enhanced side window glazing. Side curtain airbags will need to provide additional coverage, will need to be made from a higher tensile strength material and may even be required to have both a top and bottom anchor point. These changes may keep you from being ejected out a side window, but they’re not going to do much to mitigate injury if you’re unbelted in a tumbling car.
The NHTSA estimates that implementing these changes will cost $31 per vehicle (in 2009 dollars), but I’m skeptical. Automakers will need to completely redesign airbag systems, from the material used in the bags themselves all the way to the size of the propellent charge. If dual anchoring is required, chances are good that doors will need strengthening to accommodate the lower tethers. If changes to window glazing are required, that adds further cost, and all the mandated changes will add weight to vehicles at a time when manufacturers are struggling to save every ounce to boost fuel economy. The net result of all these changes, according to the NHTSA, is the prevention on 373 fatalities and 476 serious injuries. I’m for nearly anything that makes cars safer, but aren’t we missing the obvious here? Until drivers buckle up, each and every time they get behind the wheel, we’re still going to have needless fatalities and injuries.
If you want to read the entire 310 NHTSA brief, you can grab it here: Ejection_mitigation_FR_Jan2011.