Automobile air-bags have always been somewhat of a mixed blessing. While they work well in most cases, they can be deadly to children and even small adults. This is because when airbags deploy, it's not exactly a gentle process. They inflate with a tremendous amount of force, which for little ones, hits them in the head and neck area rather than the more durable torso. Hundreds upon hundreds of kids have lost their lives to this safety device, and each case is frustratingly tragic. I can think of nothing more horrible than to lose a 5-year-old boy or girl in a minor fender bender that barely causes any damage to the car, all because he or she happened to be sitting in the front seat when the air bag deployed - a storyline in numerous deaths we've followed. Which is why you don't sit children in the front seat of a car that has air bags.
After more than a decade of development, Ford motor company is about to launch the first airbag designed primarily with children in mind. It's an airbag sewn directly into the seatbelt itself, with bags that pop out into sausage-shaped tubes in a crash. The breakthrough involved working out a new type of cold gas system that inflates the tubes. A cylinder underneath the seat (much like a Co2 cartridge) shoots its contents of cold gas through a special safety-belt buckle and into the bags in the event of a crash. Because of the way they expand, it spreads the force of the crash out over 5-times as much area, which will greatly reduce the jolt children experience, and thus, the degree of injury they sustain.
The seatbelt air bags should be especially helpful in combating seatbelt syndrome - a condition where a child's spine is broken in a crash and they become paralyzed. This happens because of the way in which the seat belt sits on them, which causes an uneven distribution of force. (This was a primary reason for the invention of booster seats, which were intended to combat this problem by better adjusting the way shoulder straps rest on a child. Lap belts alone, however, can be even worse, causing a whiplash action right in the child's midsection.)
As an added bonus, Ford spokesman Wesley Sherwood says that more than 90% of those who tested the belts rated them at least as comfortable as conventional belts, and many said they were even more comfortable because the thickness of the bag folded inside the belts makes them feel softer. This may assist in the battle to get more rear-seat passengers to buckle up; something government data reveals only 61% of rear-seat occupants to do, compared to 82% in the front seat.
These back seat airbags will be optional, at $395 extra, on the 2011 Ford Explorer, which hit dealers this past December. Eventually, Ford plans to include the feature globally in other models and seating positions.
We seldom get all googly-eyed over a safety feature, nor do we generally openly endorse a commercial product. But this is one that, if it works as planned, could help spare at least some children the torment of a debilitating spine injury.