In 2004, side-impact crashes killed nearly 10,000 Americans, so the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently compared the benefits of two kinds of side airbags -- those that protect the torso and those that protect both the torso and the head.
In cars, torso airbags alone reduced driver deaths by 26 percent. Head and torso airbags were even more effective, reducing deaths by 37 percent.
"We found savings in deaths across the board," said Anne McCartt of IIHS. "We found reductions in deaths for old and younger drivers, for male and female drivers, for drivers in small cars and for large passenger vehicles."
Side airbags that provide head and torso protection are particularly important for occupants of cars struck in the side by a higher-riding sport utility vehicle or pickup truck, McCartt said.
For SUV drivers, the benefits of side airbags were even more dramatic. Torso bags cut the risk of death by 30 percent, and the fatality risk dropped by 52 percent with both head and torso airbags.
"It's important to remember that side airbags can save your life not only in a side-impact crash with another vehicle but also in single-vehicle crashes where a car runs off the road and slides into a tree or the vehicle rolls over," McCartt said.
Just 40 percent of new vehicles have torso and head airbags as standard equipment. Although the government doesn't require side airbags, automakers have agreed to make them standard in every vehicle by 2010.