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

Safe and smart | Smart technology


about Jessica

During her time as senior copywriter at Esurance, Jessica wrote about everything from automotive trends to insurance tips to driving dogs (it’s a thing!). In her free time, you can find Jessica hiking with her dog (who cannot drive), devouring a good mystery, or very slowly learning Spanish.