As a partial cure, in 1996, the NHTSA proposed new airbag warnings — posted on sun visors — began to promote "smart" airbags, and authorized depowering airbags via cut-off switches. In that regard, consumers were not authorized to disconnect airbags themselves but, with case-by-case NHTSA approval, car dealers and repair shops could do so. While the "smart" airbag idea was not then adopted, it offered several additional protections: inflation pressure would be reduced, and airbags would inflate with variable force depending upon the speed of the crash. With passage of the Transportation Equity Act [TEA 21] in 1998, however, Congress set goals for the NHTSA in regulating airbags to improve occupant protection for occupants of different sizes and to minimize the risk to infants and children. Over a three-year period beginning in September 2003, manufacturers were required to install "smart" airbags. New crash tests were required simulating different types of crashes and new, smaller crash test dummies were introduced to supplement standard crash test dummies.
Research and development continued and led to many improvements. There were higher deployment thresholds, i.e., crashes at speeds of less than 12 mph did not deploy airbags. "Second generation" airbags were introduced, so called because they used less propellant. Low-cost tethers were installed to keep airbags from intruding too far into the passenger compartment. Lighter materials were used in the airbags themselves. Adjustable (to accident forces) inflators were added. Though this presented the greatest challenge to manufacturers, better sensors were added, as well. Suppression systems were installed to ensure that those sitting in close proximity to an airbag (a short driver sitting close to the steering wheel or a passenger leaning over to pick something up from the floor) would not be injured when the airbag detonated. Weight sensors in seats or floor pans could determine if someone was too close to the airbag — or if the seat was empty — and prevent deployment. An alternate improvement came with "bias" flaps. If sensors detected someone was in the way of the deploying airbag, force deployed to the side instead of directly toward the passenger. Diagnostic modules were added that tested the readiness of the airbag system whenever the car was started, and lit indicators were added to ensure occupants that their airbag would deploy if circumstances necessitated that. Rather than continued reliance on sodium azide as a propellant, compressed air was used. These gas inflators were elongated cylinders and could be situated inside the instrument panel, door panel, or side pillars. Besides moving away from the toxic product (sodium azide), the compressed gas kept deployment temperatures lower, resolving an earlier issue with heat build-up that could set fire to trim.
In the 2000s, even on budget cars, more airbags began to appear — knee airbags, side curtain airbags, and rear airbags. Safety is increasingly important to buyers and these days it is common to see four or six airbag units in cars. In 2008, Toyota introduced the first rear curtain airbag (which inflates over the rear window) in its microcar iQ. Ford is advertising a number of new airbag features on its 2012 Focus. The driver-side airbag uses a new tether designed to pull in the lower section of the airbag that can provide additional protection to chest and ribs. Side airbags are vented, reducing pressure on smaller occupants, and there's an improved match between occupant size and deployment force. There is already an association for deciding whether and/or how to recycle airbags, too. It's the Automotive Recyclers Association and they're looking at safe, green ways to reuse airbags. As long as they are properly matched, handled, and installed, they should be safe.-
The future of airbags surely includes innovations in a number of areas. Work is being done on a quasi-airbag for rear seat occupants wherein an airbag is incorporated into the shoulder belt and is deployed simultaneously with other airbags. Increased use will be made of infrared and ultrasonic sensing technology. Airbags will be lighter in weight and will be deployed by smaller, more integrated systems. There will be numerous variations in the way the bag is folded, how it is tethered and vented, and its deployment path. There will be rear seat airbags — built into the back of the front seat. Manufacturers will make model-specific videos available on YouTube so consumers can view the effectiveness of the airbags installed on their cars. There will be a kind of black box for cars that can capture information about the occupant, his position in the seat, proximity to the airbags, etc.
But whatever those advances are and whenever they appear, one thing is for sure. Airbags are saving lives. GM did a study in 1989 that showed combining lap/shoulder belts and airbags reduced driver fatalities by 46%. When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a study of road accidents from 1985 to 1991, it found that fatalities in frontal collisions were 28% lower in cars with airbags. A State Farm Insurance Company study reported that drivers using both seat belts and airbags were 35% less likely to suffer serious crash injuries than drivers using only seat belts. The NHTSA estimates that airbags have saved one in six drivers and front passengers from deadly accidents. In 2010, the Department of Transportation announced that, due to numerous safety improvements, 2009 highway deaths had fallen to levels as low as those reported in 1954 — not bad, not bad at all.
In January 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board met to consider whether to recommend that airbags be installed in planes. The FAA approved the use of aviation airbags in 2003 and while half of general aviation planes (pretty much everything but military aircraft and commercial airline planes) sold today come with airbags, they represent less than a third of those planes registered in the U.S. The likeliest airbags to be used would be ones incorporated into seat belts, and though no such decision has been made, it's possible that these could begin to appear in helicopters or commercial airliners, as well.
Since 2006, two Swedish inventors have been working on the Hövding, a clever airbag helmet for cyclists. Worn around the neck like a scarf, it contains an airbag that inflates to hood the cyclist's head. If, say, a cyclist is clipped by a car, sensors register the cyclist's erratic movements and activate the release mechanism.
Motorcyclists can wear an airbag jacket or vest. The biker attaches a tether from the clothing to an anchor point on the bike. If the rider is suddenly ejected from the bike, a carbon dioxide cartridge deploys and inflates a bladder in the clothing. In 2005, though, Honda's Gold Wing was the first production motorcycle to include airbags. The airbag module is situated in front of the rider. Four crash sensors are attached on both sides of the front fork. If the on-board computer determines a frontal crash is imminent, the airbag is deployed.