Cars and Cyclists: No Longer Mortal Enemies?

Dutch group pioneers external airbags for autos

Picture this if you dare, commuting cyclists:

It’s 9 a.m. and you’re cycling to work, happily beating rush hour on the highways and subways by taking city streets, which you’ve learned to navigate with ease. You’re breezing through a familiar intersection when, all of a sudden, a car barrels through a stop sign at 25 miles per hour, slamming into you sidelong.

As your head is about to crack into the glass something strange happens: an air bag deploys from beneath the hood to cover the windshield, reducing the impact and saving your life.

New technology under development in The Netherlands might make this a reality.

Dutch research organization TNO has recently tested external air bags and automatic emergency brakes in order to protect people outside of the vehicle.

This technology can’t come a moment too soon. In 2010, 618 cyclists were killed and 52,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Dutch organization, funded by the country’s government, conducted forty full-scale crash tests with the external air bag in the most common collision scenarios. They also outfitted five test cars with sensor cameras to collect data on near impacts in two Dutch cities in order to fine-tune the system.

The idea has its critics. Lloyd Alter at Treehugger invokes the idea of risk compensation, writing, “With an airbag on the front, drivers can just go faster and mow down more cyclists with impunity.”

This seems unlikely, given the deployment of an air bag in such accidents; and given that one of TNO’s sponsors was Dutch insurer Centraal Beheer Achmea, it seems that insurance companies might agree with the cyclists whose lives this technology may save.