/ Motoring

An airbag for pedestrians could be costly for motorists

Car innovations, such as the pedestrian airbag on Volvo’s V40 hatchback, are great news for road safety. But the bad news for motorists is that such complex new safety systems could make cars more costly to own.

Volvo’s innovative new pedestrian airbag system is a world first. Fitted as standard equipment to the new V40 hatchback, it goes further to protect pedestrians than other bonnet offerings, such as the Jaguar XF system.

While others deploy the airbag under the bonnet to lessen the impact for a pedestrian’s head, the V40’s airbag pops out the top of the bonnet and up the car’s A-pillars creating a cushion covering these areas.

The new technology is part of Volvo’s corporate strategy to eliminate injuries in and around its cars by 2020. In the V40 it works alongside an upgraded version of the firm’s City Safety system, which now automatically stops the car at speeds up to 31mph (instead of 19mph) if a collision is imminent.

Between them, these systems aim to wipe out the vast majority of traffic fatalities (14% of road deaths in Europe are pedestrians) and either prevent or lessen the severity of urban shunts.

Who will foot the bill for safety innovations?

While this is all great news for pedestrians, it may not be so good for motorists in the long run for a couple of reasons.

At Which? Car we recently investigated a case where a Jaguar XF bonnet airbag was activated by a very small, light food waste caddy.

During our investigation we came across other cases where XF owners claimed their cars’ airbags had gone off after leaves landed on the bonnet, and in one case when they hadn’t noticed anything touching it at all.

In the case of one Which? member, his insurance company covered the £3k cost of getting his car roadworthy again, but he had to pay the excess and risk the chance of his premiums rising in future.

Rising insurance premiums

That said, the vast majority of car airbags will only go off when they’re supposed to – and protect people in an accident, so of course they are a good thing – and I applaud Volvo for taking the lead in improving road safety.

However, I have two longer-term concerns with airbags: how long will they last, and how much will they cost to replace? Carmakers need to be more up-front about both of these things. After all, if the airbags on a 10-year-old mainstream car need replacing, it’s highly likely the cost will render the car a write-off, even though it may be otherwise mechanically sound.

This smacks of carmakers finding areas where they can build in obsolescence and force motorists to replace cars before they really need to. Worse still are the insurance companies – why aren’t they working with carmakers to offer drivers of safer cars lower premiums, rather than constantly hiking them?

My worry here is that if cars do become more costly to repair because they’re fitted with complex safety equipment, insurers will simply use this as another excuse to raise premiums.


While this system is being refined, it would be a good idea to get rid of the bull bars fitted to some vehicles. I appreciate that new bars must present less of a hazard to pedestrians, but I can see no reason for fitting them to vehicles used on public roads.

Em says:
31 May 2012

Maybe slightly off topic but, unfortunately, I’m yet to be convinced the pedestrian air bag is such “great news”. I’m not even sure a responsible organisation like Which? should be promoting these incidental aids to road safety (other than to question the cost-of-ownership). It seems more likely it will give the uneducated motorist a false sense of security, than save a pedestrian’s life in practice.

The pure cynic (and physicist) in me says this is just another expensive device to enable the wealthier motorist to buy off some of the guilt for their antisocial behaviour, whilst coincidentally increasing motor industry profits. “Sure, I sometimes drive at 40mph in a 20mph zone, but it’s now OK, ‘cos I’ve got a pedestrian airbag fitted! If the little blighters run out of the school gates into my path, why, they’ll just bounce off the bonnet and out of harm’s way. Everyone’s a winner!”

If you don’t recognise the guilt-driven market segment I’m taking about, they are the same group that buy a Toyota Prius, then use it to hammer up the fast lane of the Motorway, burning more fuel than an efficient Diesel 4×4 could ever use by cruising within the legal limit. I know about this; I’ve had a Prius on-long-term loan and it is not fuel-efficient at speeds above 60 mph, so who do these motorist think they are kidding?

Technology is only beneficial in the hands of the responsible motorist, and responsible motorists do not always need the technology.


Fair comments, though I think we do deserve to know how car manufacturers waste their time and our money on poorly thought out designs.

Car manufacturers could usefully get together and develop a non-pneumatic tyre that could not blow out, would be puncture proof and cost no more to replace than a conventional tyre. After all, they are doing their best to get rid of the full-size spare wheel.

Em says:
2 June 2012

Something like the Michelin Tweel? Don’t know what is holding back development of this appoach, but they are working on it.


There are practical problems to be resolved but hopefully this type of airless wheel/tyre will be the way forward.


The idea is only sane if you really believe that at no stage will it become amusing to set-off these devices. After all it is easier to do this rather than base-jumping, or writing graffitti on viaducts with the added benefit you can easily keep score and get your mates to YouTube it.

I am amazed that no-one has thought this idea properly – sorry I should be amazed however there are many items that get into production without anyone really thinking of the consequences. Of course some firms do and do not care as profit and image are involved.

It is truly a magnificently stupid concept. In 2010 there 405 pedestrian road deaths and out of that total it would be difficult how many might be saved by this airbag.


You are right dieseltaylor. Cars are enough of a target for vandals.

As someone might point out, that is 405 deaths too many and not doubt there are more who are injured by vehicles.

I suspect that it might be better to spend money on keeping pedestrians, cyclists and cars separate, especially where there have been accidents. That is unlikely to be funded by car manufacturers, so perhaps they could devise a GPS-controlled system that prevents cars exceeding the speed limit.

Phil says:
2 June 2012

In addition to the 405 killed there another 5,000 or so are seriously injured. Whilst the definition of seriously injured is open to question some of these people will have sustained life changing injuries to use the modern idiom. Brain damage, paralysis, lost limbs and so forth requiring a life time of care.

That said I’m not convinced passenger airbags will work every time due to the high number of variables, if they can save a small child hit head on will they work with a six foot plus 22 stone man hit at an oblique angle?


“This smacks of carmakers finding areas where they can build in obsolescence and force motorists to replace cars before they really need to. Worse still are the insurance companies – why aren’t they working with carmakers to offer drivers of safer cars lower premiums, rather than constantly hiking them?”
Hits the nail on the head really…..

What I can’t understand is that with massive hunks of metal driving past pedestrians (at whatever speed, with no railings) road deaths of pedestrians are inevitable.

Save from putting railings along all road junctions, any else is a surreptitious attempt by car makers to get us to spend more. Auto drive will be another one, we can’t all afford it so it cannot be made legislation.

This is similar to railways, think of all the railway platforms that have people standing on them when trains hurtle past at about 125mph. Surely some deaths are inevitable?