- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

Almost 10,000 people are killed each year in side-impact crashes, and head injuries cause more than half of these deaths.

However, a new technology side head air bags can help people survive severe side impacts. But, until recently, only consumers who could afford a luxury vehicle got this extra protection for their precious noggins.

That changed last fall when General Motors' 2001 Saturns became the least-expensive vehicles, ($11,035 including $465 for delivery) available with head air bags designed to reduce these serious injuries. Dedicated head air bags are different from side-impact airbags located either in the seat or door panel since they are aimed primarily at protecting the chest or head and chest.

Dedicated head air bags are located along the edge of the roof, or headliner, inside the vehicle and deploy downward in an attempt to protect the head alone. They come in several configurations. Some, such as BMW's, are "sausage-like." Those from Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus and now Saturn are curtains. Some head air bags protect front-seat occupants only; others protect those in the front and rear.

"Head air bags are a big step forward for side-impact protection," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group largely funded by the insurance industry and based in Arlington.

"That is because occupants are more vulnerable to injury in a side collision than in a front crash," Mr. O'Neill said. In a side collision, only the metal of the door and a few inches of space separate occupants from an intruding object or vehicle. In a frontal collision, the entire front of a vehicle is designed to absorb crash energy before it reaches passengers.

"Head air bags can be particularly important when a truck or sport utility hits a passenger car because the hood of the truck is likely to be at about the height of the head of the person in the car," Mr. O'Neill said.

Crash tests conducted by the institute have demonstrated that bags designed to protect the head can make a significant difference.

When a 1998 Lincoln Town Car without head air bags was tested, the impact registered on the dummy's head was 5,390 points, which means a force high enough to kill. When the same test was done with a 1999 Town Car with a chest-and-head type air bag, the impact was reduced to 376. Scores of 1,000 or higher indicate a serious head injury such as a skull fracture or brain injury is likely.

In 1997, when the institute crashed a BMW 5 Series without an air bag to protect the head, the score was 4,720. With the head protection, which is designed as an inflatable sausage-like tube, it was 620.

"They are both good results," said Mr. O'Neill. "You're at the level where the risk of a significant head injury is essentially zero."

In the past year, these air bags have been available in more vehicles, especially those that are less expensive. DaimlerChrysler is offering curtain-type head air bags as a $300 option in its 2001 Stratus and Sebring sedans, 2002 Dodge Ram and Durango, and 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty.

Saturn unveiled its head air bag in the 2001 model year. For 2002 it continues to be available as a $325 option on the 2002 S series, and has now become standard equipment on the 2002 L series. The next General Motors models to get curtain-type head air bags will be 2003 models the Cadillac CTS and Saturn's new sport-utility, the Vue.

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