Thirty years of saving lives: Happy Birthday to the airbag


Although perhaps not as influential as the seatbelt, the airbag’s contribution to vehicle safety is significant – and when combined with a safety harness unparalleled in terms of saving lives and reducing injury. Here, we look back at Daimler’s developmental work and learn how the humble airbag will be saving lives for many years to come

Thirty years ago, the first series-production car equipped with an airbag left the Mercedes-Benz assembly line in Sindelfingen – an S-Class Saloon. This brought to an end more than 13 years of development time for the first driver airbag at Mercedes-Benz, and with it the dawn of new era in vehicle safety.

According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to date the airbag has saved more than 28,000 lives in the USA alone. Mercedes-Benz insists it made the innovation available in series-production cars long before other manufacturers, and has meanwhile equipped millions of vehicles with this protective system. Since October 1992, a driver airbag has been standard equipment in all passenger cars bearing the Mercedes star.

Right: Systematic occupant protection: this Mercedes diagram from 1980 explained how the airbag and belt tensioner worked based on a single sensor signal

The fact that more and more vehicles are being equipped with life-saving airbag systems is one of the reasons for the rapid and continuous decline in the number of road accident victims in Germany. The Federal Statistical Office has just released provisional figures for the first half of 2010 that state: “Provisional figures show that there were 1,675 road traffic fatalities in Germany from January to the end of June 2010. This was 291 or 15% fewer people than in the first half of 2009. This reduction is all the more remarkable as a heavy decline was already recorded in the first half of the previous year. This very positive development in the first six months of 2010 indicates that this year, we can expect the number of road traffic fatalities to fall below 4,000 for the first time.”

A recent study by the NHTSA in the USA examined the effectiveness of belt and airbag systems and came to impressive conclusions: “Compared to an occupant not wearing a seatbelt in a vehicle with no airbag, the statistical probability of fatal injury with an airbag and seatbelt is 61% lower.” In its study the NHTSA also pointed out the importance of avoiding accidents with very high collision speeds.

Left: Launched in December 1980, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W 126 series) was the world’s first car to feature a driver’s airbag and a belt tensioner for the front passenger

These are findings already known to Mercedes-Benz accident researchers long ago, and they have therefore been part of the brand’s comprehensive approach to safety for many years.

For instance, Mercedes-Benz was also the world pioneer in the field of handling safety systems such as ESP, also known as ESC. The aim of these is to prevent accidents when the driver has lost control of the vehicle.

With PRE-SAFE – which has been available exclusively in Mercedes models since 2002 – the company’s approach is to use anticipatory safety measures to avoid accidents completely, mitigate their severity and reduce the loads acting on vehicle occupants.

Over the years, protective systems have ben improved and extended also. After driver and front passenger airbags, Mercedes-Benz developed sidebags and headbags for protection during lateral collisions – with great success. According to the findings of in-house accident researchers, the probability of serious or fatal injury in the event of a lateral collision in a vehicle equipped with headbags is reduced by more than half. The proportion of seriously and fatally injured occupants in lateral collisions fell significantly in the cases examined.

Right: The airbag supplements the seatbelt by cushioning the occupant’s head and upper body in the event of a frontal impact in order to help prevent serious injury

Protective systems are becoming more and more intelligent. Belt tensioners, for instance, improve the protective effect of seatbelts. Multi-stage airbags respond according to accident severity. All in all, the control systems for these onboard safety features now have the processing power of the ‘supercomputers’ used in space exploration 25 years ago.

Despite the large number of lives saved, as well as continuous improvements to these protection systems, skeptics still occasionally pose the question whether the airbag can also be dangerous – a question that almost brought development of the airbag to a stop in the early years. During the first tests in the early 1970s, a fatality occurred in the USA, which caused practically all car manufacturers to cease their development efforts for a period. However, only Mercedes-Benz continued to believe in the protective effect and feasibility of airbag systems – and after intensive development work driven by a large measure of pioneering spirit, the company introduced the first mature, series-production airbags in Mercedes-Benz cars in 1980.

Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of airbag systems since then. One such study by the NHTSA published in January 2009 documented their great life-saving potential. Since their introduction, airbags have saved a total of 28,244 lives in the USA: 23,127 drivers (of whom 13,999 were not wearing a seatbelt) and 5,117 front passengers (of whom 2,883 were not wearing a seatbelt) owe their lives to the airbag.

All safety experts agree that the airbag can never be a substitute for seatbelts. It is only in conjunction with a seatbelt that it becomes an optimally coordinated system that demonstrably makes a major contribution to the prevention of severe or fatal injuries to the occupants during serious accidents.

This is also shown in a study conducted by the German Road Traffic Office (Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen – BASt), which states: “During collisions with oncoming traffic, passive safety features such as airbags and seatbelts mitigate the severity of the accident by a very significant 42% in new vehicles, compared to 14% for older vehicles.”

The January 2011 edition of Vision Zero International will feature a massive focus on developments in airbag technology as well as a focus on its future in a potentially crash-free society. This edition will also be exclusively distributed at Airbag 2010: the 10th International Symposium & Exhibition on Sophisticated Car Occupant Safety Systems, to be held at Karlsruhe Congress Center, Germany, December 6-8, 2010

Share this story:

About Author


Adam joined the company in 1994, and has been News Editor of TTT since 2009. In his other role as Circulation Manager, he helped create the original Traffic Technology International distribution list 23 years ago, and has been working on it ever since. Outside of work, he is a keen fisherman, runs a drumming band, and plays an ancient version of cricket.