Nov. 5, 2009 -- Some cars today have as many as 20 airbags – in the front, on the sides, to shield heads, even airbags to protect knees. Now, Ford is going one step further. The automaker has announced it will become the first automaker to offer seatbelt airbags for backseat passengers. The airbags will appear first in the company's next general Ford Explorer – due out in about a year.
The airbags will be sewn into the shoulder portion of the rear seat belts – and will deploy outward and sidewise, like a small tubular pillow. Ford says these seatbelt airbags deploy more slowly and with much less force than frontal airbags. That, they say, makes it safe for a rear seat occupant, from a young child to an elderly passenger.
Ford Vice President Sue Cischke told ABC News, "This marries two life-saving technologies – the airbag technology and the seatbelts."
"We do a lot of testing in all different configurations to make sure whatever we introduce is safe," Cischke said. She added that Ford even tested to see what would happen if a child's head was resting on the seatbelt when the bag deployed, "We've done testing with kids sleeping, a dummy simulating a child sleeping, just to make sure that it works under all different conditions."
Ford says it also tested the new airbag with child car seats and booster seats.
"They (parents) don't need to worry, because we're doing this to protect kids,"said Cischke.
Independent experts agree that the bag should not present a safety problem. Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said, "You never know the answer to that until it's actually out there, but we certainly don't expect to see problems from these belts. The belt that you are inflating is a much smaller area. There's much less energy used to inflate these belts."
The seatbelt airbags are designed to help support the head and neck in accidents. They also reduce the chance of chest injuries, by spreading the forces of an accident over a wider area of the passenger's chest – than a narrow seatbelt does. Ford says they are designed to spread the crash forces across five times more body area than traditional seatbelts do.
"If it's a severe crash," said Lund, "(seatbelts) put a point load, if you will, a very narrow load on your chest. So sometimes we see cracked ribs from the seatbelt itself. By spreading the load, you don't get that narrow focus on the bone or the chest or the clavicle."
"Seatbelts are the number one life-saving devices in a car," said Cischke, "and this is another evolution of the seatbelt. So we think it's going to make a big difference."
Seatbelt airbags may also have another benefit. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, looking at seatbelt airbags in general, found they can greatly reduce the risk of passenger ejection during a rollover accident.
Automakers have traditionally focused on safety for the front seat passengers, who make up the majority of fatalities on the nation's highways. These new seatbelt airbags shift the focus to the back seat.
"It's a smaller part of the problem," said Lund, "but, you know, many of the occupants in these seats are our children, and those are very important to us."
Ford won't say how much the airbags will cost, except to say it won't be inexpensive. They'll be offered as optional equipment on the new Ford Explorer – for the two outboard rear seats.
It's likely other automakers and government regulators will be watching closely – to see if consumers are clamoring for the new safety devices, and how much protection they offer.
Others are looking at new uses for airbags as well. Toyota is introducing a rear seat center airbag to provide added protection in side crashes. There's also industry talk of external airbags that would deploy in an accident – to protect pedestrians… and to offer extra protection for smaller cars.