While all new vehicles sold today must have frontal air bags that deploy from the steering wheel and dash to protect you in a frontal crash, many also have side air bags to shield you during side impact collisions.
This article explains how they work, the different types of side air bags, and how to identify possible defects and the injuries they cause.
How Side Air Bags Work
Side air bags are sometimes called side impact air bags and are abbreviated as SAB or SIAB. They are designed to protect you when your car is stuck on the side, such as during an intersection (T-bone) accident or if your car slides off the road and its side hits a tree or utility pole.
Crash sensors for SABs are usually installed inside the bottom of the "B-pillar," which is the post behind the front door that helps hold up the roof. In some vehicles, these crash sensors are inside the front door or near the back seat area.
Your car, truck, van or SUV usually has at least one crash sensor on each side of the vehicle. During a side impact crash, one of your SAB sensors should detect the sideways (lateral) deceleration and send an electrical signal to the air bags to begin inflating.
SABs are most commonly installed inside your seat, attached to the upper part of the seat frame near the door. In a few vehicles, they are installed inside your door, benefit the plastic trim cover. These are designed to provide a protective cushion between you and the side of your car.
Types of Side Air Bags
There are three primary types of side air bags. The first is known as a "torso" air bag since it protects only the torso or upper body. Rectangular and fairly small in size, it's often less than 18 inches tall when fully inflated.
This type was used in many of the first vehicles equipped with SABs. Unfortunately, these air bags usually provide very little protection to your head and neck.
The second type is known as a "head and torso" bag. Taller than a regular torso bag, it extends forward to protect the head and neck, as well as the chest and upper torso during side impact accidents.
Generally, this type of air bag protects you much better in an accident by protecting your head, neck and chest from the side of your car and the vehicle that hit you. This is particularly true when you are hit in the side of your vehicle by a taller vehicle, such as a pickup truck, van or SUV.
A more recent type of SAB is the "curtain" air bag. A curtain air bag deploys down from the edge of the roof and is intended to cover most of the window. That way it can protect your head and neck, even when they would otherwise move outside the window during the accident.
For maximum protection, curtain air bags are sometimes combined with torso air bags that deploy from the seat or door trim to protect your chest. In many cases, such curtain air bags extend from the front seat toward the back, and can so also protect back seat passengers.
In prior years, other types of SABs were sometimes used, but on a much smaller scale. For example, a few cars used a tubular protection system consisting of an air bag shaped like a tube that ran from the front to the back of the door, extending across the window. These systems need a separate torso air bag to adequately protect your chest. Often, there were significant disadvantages associated with such side air bags that sent in limited use.
Many people do not realize there are a lot of SABs that do not deploy during a rollover accident, even when the vehicle rolls onto its side. That is because those SABs do not include an appropriate crash sensor that can detect rollover crashes.
We have received reports of salespeople at car dealerships telling consumers that their SABs will deploy in rollover accidents, even when that is not true. Such statements can cause the salespeople and the dealer to be held responsible for misrepresentation or fraud when the air bags fail to deploy in a rollover.
Side Air Bag Defects and Injuries
Common defects in SAB systems include failure to install a side air bag, or installing only a torso air bag that fails to protect the head and neck. Perhaps the most common defect reported to us is the failure of the SAB to deploy during a side impact crash. Often, this results from defective sensor placement or defective software algorithms in electronic sensors that fail to detect the crash severity. This can stem from negligent testing programs that do not address real-world crashes.
Some SABs can hang up on the seat or trim panels, causing them to deploy incompletely or improperly. Also, a few SAB systems were defectively designed to be so forceful that they can inflict serious personal injuries or even catastrophic injuries when they inflate. Such "aggressive" side air bags are particularly dangerous for children and infants.
These defects can cause sever personal injuries, including head trauma; traumatic brain injuries (TBI); skull fractures; facial injuries; spinal cord injuries; cervical spine fractures or dislocations; paralysis (paraplegia, quadriplegia); arm and hand injuries, including traumatic amputation; chest injuries; heart injuries; pelvic injuries; bone fractures / orthopedic injections; flail chest; as well as numerous other injuries. In some cases, defects in your side air bags can cause your death.