Pedestrian Air Bags from Volvo: They’re Not Just Blowing Hot Air

Car safety has come a long way in a short time. After all, it wasn’t until the 1980s that states began establishing seat belt laws (we’re still waiting for New Hampshire to hop on board that train). And frontal air bags are now standard in all cars — with side-impact air bags becoming increasingly common.

So what’s next for safety innovation? Protecting people outside the car, of course!

Volvo introduces pedestrian air bags

Always a leader in safety — they introduced the first 3-point safety belt in 1958 — Volvo has done it again. At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Stefan Jacoby, president and CEO of Volvo Car Corporation, announced that the Volvo V40 5-door hatchback will soon be equipped with pedestrian air bags. You read that right: pedestrian air bags!

How pedestrian air bags work

The Volvo V40 will feature front bumper sensors that register contact between the car and a pedestrian. If the bumper senses impact, a section of the hood will rise and a U-shaped air bag will pop out. The air bag will cover the upper part of the hood and the bottom and sides of the windshield. The shape allows the driver to still see out the windshield — probably a good idea considering the driver is controlling thousands of pounds of machinery.

Why external air bags make sense

As car interiors become ever-safer, it was only a matter of time before someone set their sights on the exterior. And it makes sense. The U.S. saw over 4,000 pedestrian deaths in 2009 — that’s 12 percent of all accident-related fatalities. So adding some padding to the outside of the car could help soften the blow. (Literally.)

But will it work?

That remains to be seen.

When a car hits a pedestrian, the primary impact from the bumper often results in injury to the lower body. If the car was going fast enough, a secondary, often more injurious, impact can occur between the pedestrian and the hood and/or windshield of the car.

Enter the pedestrian air bag. According to a study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a pedestrian air bag has the potential to not only soften impact, but also to prevent the person from rolling off the hood and into the road — thus preventing additional impact.

We don’t yet know whether the U-shaped Volvo air bag will have the same results, but the concept certainly has us excited. Plus, the Volvo V40 comes with another pedestrian safety feature …

Pedestrian detection

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that drivers who hit pedestrians while traveling straight brake only 13 percent of the time. So there’s room for a little help in this department. Once again, Volvo’s got it covered. The V40 will use sensors and a camera to detect if a pedestrian steps in front of the car. And if the driver doesn’t respond in time, the car can automatically activate the brakes.

This actually isn’t new technology — Volvo debuted it in its S60 2 years ago — but when you pair it with the pedestrian air bag, the V40’s looking pretty innovative.

Pedestrian safety tips

Let’s not forget that the pedestrian air bag isn’t a cure-all. So until the day comes when cars are made of pillows, pedestrians need to stay alert when walking near the road and drivers need to be mindful of sharing the road with pedestrians. Here are some pedestrian safety tips to help avoid a potentially dangerous situation.

  • Look both ways. Most of us learned this as soon as we could walk, and it’s no less valid today. As you cross the street, continue looking out for oncoming traffic, as cars can come (seemingly) out of nowhere.
  • Make eye contact with drivers. When you reach an intersection, make sure the driver sees you before you proceed into the street. It’s common for drivers to attempt right turns without first scanning for pedestrians.
  • Pay attention. Even if you’re walking on the sidewalk, be aware of what’s going on in the road near you. If a car’s swerving or moving exceptionally fast, get out of the way. Cars can (and do) jump curbs — sometimes with disastrous results.
  • Use crossing signals. Jaywalking laws exist for a reason — and it’s not just to get revenue for the city. Drivers — especially distracted drivers — may be on the lookout for a red light, but not for a person on foot.
  • Be visible. When walking at night, carry a flashlight and wear bright (ideally, reflective) clothing.
  • Face traffic. If you have to walk in the street, walk toward traffic so you can see approaching cars and get out of the way (this is actually law in some states).

Many recent car innovations raise concerns about distraction and driver safety — think infotainment systems — so it’s refreshing to see a concept based entirely on safety. Unfortunately, it may be a while until we see pedestrian air bags in the U.S. (Volvo has no plans to release this car stateside.) But now that the technology exists, we hope it’s only a matter of time before other carmakers follow suit.

Now tell us what you think

We’ve seen some people say a technology like pedestrian air bags isn’t worth the money. But if it can save lives, we definitely disagree. What do you think? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.

Related links

Our air bag safety tips
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety air bag Q & A

6 Cool Mobile Tools from Uncle Sam

In the age of #occupy insert location here, it can be easy to think of our government as bloated, slow-moving, and reluctant to respond to its people’s needs (at best). But, every once in a while, our federal republic does something that’s smart and close to cutting-edge — such as offer a bevy of useful, interesting mobile apps and websites.

Here’s a rundown of our favorite green and car-related smartphone apps and mobile tools (plus a couple we just think are awesome) direct from good ol’ Uncle Sam.

Fuel up

Alternative Fueling Station Locator

This handy little site is a veritable must-have for drivers with rides powered by anything other than fossil fuels. Using Google’s handy mapping service, it can help you find the 5 closest refueling stations boasting biodiesel, electricity, E85 (ethanol), hydrogen, natural gas, or propane.

And as a mobile site, this tool works on any Internet-capable mobile phone.

This mobile site helps you find fuel economy data for cars of model years 2012 back to 1984. It also provides info on the new fuel economy labels (you know, those giant window stickers you see at the dealership) and can track your car’s actual mpg (the data on those fuel economy labels are estimates, after all). You can even get a list of simple tips on how to optimize your fuel economy.

This site works on any internet-capable mobile phone too, but if you have a smartphone, you can navigate to it just by scanning the QR code on those new fuel economy labels.* Handy if you’re car shopping this season!

Apps for the green at heart


A nifty tool for nature lovers and anybody who’s ever thought, “I wonder what kind of tree that is,” Leafsnap can help you identify tree species from pictures of their leaves. Plus it’s chock-full of high-res photos of trees and their various parts. A collaboration between Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, the app is available for iPad® and iPhone®. It only has Northeastern trees at present, but will soon branch out to other parts of the country!

EPA Mobile

Another handy one for green-sceners, the mobile version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s website offers access to their blog and tips on how to lead an eco-conscious life. It also offers bonus apps, which can help you find real-time air quality info, improve air quality in your own home, and learn more about your local environment.

Mobile tools for the informed driver

The White House

At Esurance, we’re all about making things smarter, and what could be smarter than keeping up-to-date on what’s going on with your government? The White House app will ensure you’re never out of the loop on the president’s latest moves. This one’s available for iPhone®, Android™, and as a mobile site.

Collections Search Center from the Smithsonian

Think you just don’t have the time or funds to visit the Smithsonian? Wrong! This mobile site can help you explore 5.4 million records with 460,000 images, video and sound files, electronic journals, and other resources. Just. Awesome.

The government offers lots of useful apps, so check out the rest of the collection to find your personal faves. While we weren’t able to extensively test all of these apps, they sound pretty cool and pretty promising. So test, explore, be smart. And if you know something we don’t, hey, let us know on our Facebook Wall.

Related links

Download the cupcake-finding, policy-viewing Esurance Mobile app.

Learn about Esurance Mobile’s accident and emergency services feature.

Discover 11 iPhone® apps you just might love.

*You’ll need to have a QR code app on your phone to take advantage of this functionality.

Do Handheld Cell Phone Bans Work?

This post was last updated on 1/31/14.

For years, people (politicians, drivers, the folks at Esurance) have speculated that talking on a cell phone while driving increases accident risk. Granted, it’s a pretty logical assumption — if you’re distracted, you can’t predict or react to hazards as quickly — but do handheld cell phone bans really work?

The short answer is “yes.”

Cell phone ban reduces injuries and fatalities

UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center looked at accident-related injuries and fatalities in California 2 years before and 2 years after the 2008 handheld cell phone ban. And what they found was a striking drop in both injuries and fatalities in the 2 years after 2008. Traffic fatalities dropped 22 percent overall, while deaths attributed to handheld cell phone use declined 47 percent. Injuries also dropped more than 50 percent from 7,720 to 3,862.

Currently, only 12 states (and the District of Columbia) ban all drivers from using handheld cell phones behind the wheel. And many of them don’t enforce the law very diligently. California, on the other hand, is one of the strictest enforcers of the ban. Based on the numbers, the ban’s working, but not — as many might assume — thanks solely to hands-free devices.

Hands-free devices still cause distraction

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that at least one in 4 accidents involves cell phone use. And research shows that any cell phone use while driving — whether it’s handheld or hands-free — impacts drivers’ reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 percent.

Though hands-free devices lessen visual and manual distractions, they don’t do anything to abate cognitive distraction. In other words, drivers using hands-free devices have a tendency to “look” but not “see.”

According to the NSC, the human brain isn’t programmed to multitask, so when we talk and drive, our brain has to constantly switch its focus back and forth between the 2 actions. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University looked at brain scans of participants as they drove in a simulator and listened to spoken sentences. They found that activity in the area associated with driving (the parietal area for you science-y types) decreased by 37 percent.

Surprisingly, handheld ban reduces hands-free use as well

If using a hands-free device is still risky, why did the injury and fatality rates decrease so much in California after the ban on handheld devices? It turns out that, following the ban, many people simply stopped using their phones altogether while driving. In a survey commissioned by the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), 40 percent of California drivers report talking less (while driving) since the handheld cell phone ban. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported similar findings.

In the same OTS survey, 62 percent of respondents indicated they believe texting and talking are the biggest safety concerns on California roads. Another 84 percent agree that talking on the phone and texting while driving present the most serious distractions. So even though drivers are allowed to talk on their phones using a hands-free device, many choose not to because of the perceived risk. This suggests that the ban has started to change the culture of cell phone use while driving, which could be the underlying reason for the drop in injuries and fatalities.

So, what can we learn from California?

In a nutshell: avoid distracted driving.

Though driving is probably the most potentially dangerous activity we do on a daily basis, many drivers don’t give it the undivided attention it deserves. Regardless of whether talking and/or texting are legal in your state, ask yourself just how important your conversation really is. Is it more important than everyone’s safety? Let’s take a cue from our friends in California. If you need to talk, pull over. That way you can devote all your attention to your conversation without that pesky road distracting you.

What do you think? Are hands-free cell phone users as big a danger on the roads as handheld users? Post a comment on Facebook.

Related links

Check out the cell phone laws in each state
Stay in the know with driving safety facts and tips
See why texting and driving is particularly dangerous
Find out why it’s a bad idea to eat while driving

Female Inventors and Innovators: 5 Automotive Trailblazers

Women’s History Month (which just happens to be going on right now) began as Women’s History Week in 1981. But let’s face it — we need a whole month to celebrate all the accomplishments of women. In fact, the list of honorees in the National Women’s Hall of Fame is staggering — women as diverse as Sojourner Truth (abolitionist), Amelia Earhart (pilot), and Lucille Ball (actress). So in 1987, Congress established Women’s History Month to promote the recognition of women in American history.

This got us thinking: Are there any significant female inventors or innovators in automotive history? There sure are … just a little digging revealed the following list of automotive pioneers.

Mary Anderson’s windshield wipers

Next time you flick on your wipers, thank Mary Anderson, who was granted a patent for the windshield wiper in 1903. Similar to what we use today, the first windshield wiper was a swinging arm with a rubber blade that could be operated manually by a lever inside the car. She tried to sell the rights in 1905 but was rejected by a Canadian firm that claimed it was “not of such commercial use as would warrant the undertaking of its sale.” Whoops. They likely regretted that decision when windshield wipers became standard in 1916.

Alice Huyler Ramsey’s road trip

Call it the ultimate road trip. In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey left her young family behind to trek across the country from New York to San Francisco. Her 3,800-mile trip took 59 days, with only 152 of those miles taking place on paved roads (not to mention she didn’t have any maps). Over the course of her journey, she had to change 11 tires, repair a broken brake pedal, and clean spark plugs (how’s that for car maintenance?).

During her life, she drove across the country 30 more times (before she stopped counting) and was once quoted as saying, “Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.” In 2000, she became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Florence Lawrence’s turn signals and brake lights

Turn signals and brake lights are (arguably) 2 of the most indispensible inventions in car history. But it wasn’t some guy in an auto shop who came up with them — it was silent film star Florence Lawrence. As a result of her film success, Ms. Lawrence had the funds to buy her first car in 1913. Her “auto signaling arm” was a device which, when the driver pressed a button, would raise or lower an arm with an attached sign that indicated the direction of the turn. The brake signal used the same idea, but with a “stop” sign attached. Sadly, she never patented her ideas and so received no credit (or compensation) when others in the auto industry copied her.

Wilma K. Russey’s taxi

On New Year’s Day 1915, Wilma K. Russey became the first female New York City taxi driver — reportedly starting her career in a leopard skin hat and stole, earning a generous tip on her first venture out. She’s also credited as being an expert mechanic. How different would the world be if every cabby had fashion sense and a penchant for mechanics?

Helene Rother’s automotive designs

In 1943, Helene Rother became the first female automotive designer. A French jewelry designer, she was hired by General Motors to fashion elegant interior designs. She spent 4 years with GM before moving on to join Nash-Kevinator (part of present-day Chrysler), working on most of the automaker’s cars from 1948 to 1956. Her designs were promoted as “irresistible glamour on wheels,” created for consumers with discriminating taste. In 1951, she became the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers and was awarded the Jackson Medal for excellence of design.

Women and the automobile

The automobile helped usher in a new era of women’s independence and autonomy. (And now, being a woman might even get you a better rate on car insurance.) Considering that at the dawn of the automobile era, women didn’t have the right to vote and were often deemed fragile and timid — certainly not capable of running (or repairing) heavy machinery — we really have come a long way, baby.

What do you think?

Are there some women in American history you’d like to see honored? Head over to Facebook and let us know about your favorite female innovators or role models.

Related links

The National Women’s Hall of Fame
The Library of Congress’ Women’s History Month site
Women’s history in transportation

Tire Maintenance: Tips for Spring

The first day of spring is finally here. And if you thought you were tired of winter, think about how your tires must feel. Built-up debris, potholes, and extreme temperature changes can all wreak havoc on their rubber soles. Routine tire maintenance will not only help you get the most out of them, but can also keep you safe while on the road.

A regular check of the following will do your tires a world of good.

Tire inflation

Winter weather can deflate your tires — tire pressure drops about 1 PSI (pounds per square inch) for every 10 degrees the temperature drops. Driving on overinflated or underinflated tires is dangerous, especially on wet pavement. Cars with properly inflated tires have better handling, shorter braking distances, longer tire life, and improved fuel economy — which is especially appealing given the high cost of gas these days.

Keep in mind that when you check your tires’ inflation, you might have to wait at least 3 hours after you last drove (people in the know call it waiting until the tires are cold). And don’t just eyeball it. Check your owner’s manual to find the recommended PSI for your tires and use a pressure gauge to get an accurate reading.

Tire tread

Tire tread provides the gripping action that prevents your vehicle from slipping or sliding, and is something to consider no matter what time of year. If your tread is worn down to 1/16 of an inch, it’s time for new tires.

Use the penny test to check your tire tread by sticking a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If part of the head is covered, you’re okay, but if you can see all of Lincoln’s noggin, it’s time for a replacement.

Tire rotation

Rotating your tires as they wear can help to maximize their life. Most manufacturers suggest you rotate your tires every 6,000 to 8,000 miles (about every 6 months for most drivers). Getting your tires rotated regularly can also alert you to any odd wear patterns, which could indicate your wheels need to be aligned.

Wheel alignment

Winter weather wreaks havoc on roads, often leading to potholes and other surface irregularities. Driving in these conditions can easily throw your front end out of alignment and result in handling problems. If your car seems like it’s pulling to one side, it’s time to take it in for a wheel alignment.

So now your tires are ready for the open road. But do they look as spiffy as they could? Find out how you could get professionally detailed tires for under $5.

For more info, check out our article on the dangers of spring driving.

Related link has a list of FAQs about tire maintenance