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Pedestrian air bag on the Volvo V40. (Volvo)
Pedestrian air bag on the Volvo V40. (Volvo)

The Green Highway

Volvo develops pedestrian airbag Add to ...

Cars are far more dangerous to pedestrians than they are to drivers and passengers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says pedestrians are much more likely to be killed than vehicle occupants on a trip-by-trip basis. By that measure, roughly two-thirds of auto-related deaths are pedestrians.

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I’ve written in the past about programs, mostly educational, attempting to reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities. Finally, there is an important safety device being built into automobiles that I believe will become mandatory in the future. It’s a pedestrian airbag that deploys in front of the windshield if a car hits a pedestrian.

Airbags in cars are nothing new but now Volvo is showing that airbags can be used to protect pedestrians, too. The new Volvo V40 is the world’s first mass-produced passenger car with an external airbag, but unfortunately it is not sold in Canada.

Volvo’s system places an external airbag in front of the windshield in the recess that hides the wipers. There are seven forward-looking sensors mounted in the front bumper that look for something the size and shape of a human leg. When it sees one, it sets off charges that raise the rear of the hood and deploy the airbag. It all takes a few hundredths of a second.

The result is the pedestrian slides up the hood and lands on the airbag that covers the lower portion of the windshield and A-pillars. Those are the hard surfaces that otherwise do the most damage and cause serious head injuries. You can’t make windshields any softer and the big, strong A-pillars help protect passengers if the car flips over. Hence, an airbag is the only feasible way to cushion a pedestrian's impact.

It is set only to work at speeds between 20 and 50 km/h to reduce the risk of false deployments and has been shown in countless tests to be able to distinguish between things like bouncing soccer balls on the road and a real pedestrian.

Each year in Ontario, nearly 100 pedestrians are killed by cars and trucks. The Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario recently released a report titled The Pedestrian Death Review. Among the findings, pedestrians over 65 years of age accounted for a disproportionately large share of fatalities; they’re 13.2 per cent of the population but 36 per cent of fatalities. Males were driving the vehicle in 67 per cent of fatalities and charges were laid in 30 per cent of cases; 75 per cent of pedestrian fatalities occurred on arterial roads, which are the wide streets with high volumes of traffic.

Study is fine but it’s clear that better technology could do more. Volvo stands alone with the pedestrian airbag, which is in line with Volvo’s positive safety reputation as the company that first introduced the safety cage in 1944, the three-point seatbelt in 1959 and the side impact airbag in 1994.

Other auto makers have steered away from the pedestrian airbag, saying that an accidental deployment would obscure the driver’s view of the road. However, even if it did go off accidentally, the Volvo air bag still leaves the upper part of windshield uncovered.

A Volvo Canada spokesman said the pedestrian airbag has been well received by customers in Europe, the only place it is available, and that the company “is a little embarrassed they didn’t bring it over here” and is now examining the business case.

This Volvo safety advancement, like the others it has made, is putting pressure on the industry as a whole. When Volvo was flying high, it had the reputation of building the safest car in the world. Now, as it tries to figure out what “Scandinavian Luxury” means for a Chinese-owned company, it should perhaps do everything it can to be leaders in the safety field again. The pedestrian airbag shows it’s trying.

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