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External Airbags on Cars: Novel Idea? Or Band-Aid Solution? 11

External airbags

External airbags photo courtesy of Fast Company

There has been talk for several years now about putting airbags on the exterior of automobiles to protect pedestrians and bicyclists if they get hit. The idea originated in the Netherlands and was lauded by our friend Mikael at Copenhagenize back in 2010.

Mikeal wrote in 2010:

So, in an inspired moment of rationality, they decided to put forth the idea of putting air bags on the machines that cause the damage – the cars. No ignoring the bull here. Place the responsibility where it belongs.

Mikael continues:

The crash test in the film is one of a series to determine where cyclists land on cars in order to figure out where the airbags should be placed. The next step is the completion of a detection system for pedestrians and cyclists. Then there is a test on the streets of Amsterdam.

“Thanks to this detection system, an airbag will be activated in the event of a collision so as to considerably cushion the impact of a cyclist’s head on the windscreen. The cyclist will not die from his injuries, and will have a good chance of coming out virtually unscathed.”

The idea of external airbags surfaced again yesterday in a post on Grist.

Grist wrote:

In a car-cycle crash, no matter whose fault it was originally, the cyclist is worse off, since her relatively unprotected body is now flying at a high speed towards the road or the car itself. But a Dutch company has come up with a partial solution to this problem, which, semi-miraculously, does not require the cyclists to carry yet another piece of safety equipment.

It is certainly refreshing to see a safety measure that isn’t all about the driver inside the car, but benefits people outside the car (you know, the more vulnerable road users).

But this type of solution doesn’t prevent collisions. In the past, safety equipment on cars has only created a sense of security that has prompted drivers to push harder, drive faster and become less cautious.

It remains to be seen whether external airbags will indeed increase safety for the most vulnerable road users: pedestrians and bicyclists. The crash test photos are a sign that they are testing out the technology and tweaking it to get the desired result.

However, there is still one piece of safety equipment that doesn’t require crash tests, but would most definitely increase safety for vulnerable road users. If I recall correctly this one was put forth by our friend Todd a few years back (paraphrased from memory):

The best way to increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists is to remove seatbelts from cars and put metal spikes on the steering wheel facing the driver. This will guarantee that drivers will be more cautious while driving.

Now that is a safety measure that I could support (though I’m not sure I could ever drive a car again).

Do you think external airbags offer the potential to improve safety for vulnerable road users? Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

James D. Schwartz is a Technology Consultant based in Toronto, Canada and Editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at or follow him on Twitter.

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11 thoughts on “External Airbags on Cars: Novel Idea? Or Band-Aid Solution?

  1. @danceswtcars Jan 30,2013 12:16 pm

    The William Gibson-esque inflatable collar/suit for the rider makes more sense to me than an active airbag externally on the car. Auto-braking proximity systems show promise.

      • @danceswtcars Jan 30,2013 3:48 pm

        Not meaning to bubble wrap the customers, but instead bubble wrap the delicate china pieces from the customers. Safety systems work best when applied to protecting the victim, as opposed to whatever may cause them harm. This way, in the example of the air bag system, deployment can happen in a myriad of ways to protect the user.

        Though the idea of being able to bang a windshield to deploy an airbag tickles the old bike messenger in me to no end.

      • @danceswtcars Jan 30,2013 3:50 pm

        In a car development I think avoidance/proximity systems show the most promise seeing that several states have already legalized autonomous cars.

    • James Jan 30,2013 3:33 pm

      Once again here, you are bubble wrapping the customers in the china shop, and allowing the dangerous bull to roam free.

      The car imposes the danger on the pedestrians, children at play, and cyclists, yet you choose to restrict their behaviour and what they wear, and let the car continue to be as dangerous. In practically everything else in life if someone behaves in a way that is dangerous, then we place restrictions on them, not on everyone else.

      • @danceswtcars Jan 30,2013 3:59 pm

        I’m all for placing more and more restrictions on the automobile, however an active safety system should be actively protecting the potential victim. In the Jiffy-Stop tech example the mass hurtling through the air would benefit more from a protective covering than the windshield.

        • James Jan 30,2013 4:52 pm

          You don’t seem to be in favor of placing restrictions on cars. The dangerous person or vehicle should have the restrictions placed on them, not the victim. I’m from Australia, where we have a ridiculous helmet law, and despite this it is more dangerous to cycle here then in countries that don’t have ridiculous helmet laws. My country is backward.
          Inconvenience the person imposing the danger ie the motorist.

          • @danceswtcars Jan 30,2013 5:00 pm

            A clarification perhaps…. More restrictions/education on the drivers are needed, making the car safer to mow into people isn’t going to fix anything.

  2. James Jan 30,2013 3:55 pm

    It seems to me that there is a religion that is the most popular in the world, called Car-ism. In this religion we forsake all of our rationality which says that normally when something creates a danger or when someone chooses to do something dangerous to other people we restrict the behavior that imposes this danger, but with Car-ism, the car is somehow special and this logic does not seem to apply. We must all get out of the way of the car no matter how stupidly its occupants are behaving. We must allow the car to not be restricted in any way and instead restrict everyone else. This is despite the fact that cars (especially in cities) don’t save time and in fact create distance.
    See with Car-ism, the car is special, we all need to smell its god like fumes, its aura, and everyone needs to pray to it from the wide multi lane roads which it creates, over areas that were once farm land, nature, or other stupid places where people could once be safe.

    In fact with Car- ism if you now choose a huge tank like vehicle people like to call an SUV, or 4X4, and drive it through the city, significantly increasing the danger you impose on everyone including small children, including your own. instead of rightfully being derided as a dangerous moron, you are revered and allowed, with the religion of Car- ism.

    See with Car- ism, all logic flies out the window, and all rationality, and the victim is blamed and the perpetrator is ignored or even applauded, because they are special and for the car the rules somehow don’t apply.

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