Why You Absolutely Need Airbags in Trucks

Pickup truck fans sometimes seem to have a love-hate relationship with modern safety features. On the one hand, classic trucks are lighter and easier to see out of because of thin A-pillars and no airbags. But that also makes them more dangerous to drive around in. And with pickups being used more and more as family vehicles, it isn’t only the driver that’s a risk in crashes. But not every safety feature is required by law. Even the US only requires front airbags, not side ones. In fact, in places like Latin America and the Caribbean, some trucks are sold and crash-test without airbags.

The Mitsubishi L200 is a truck with no airbags and terrible crash results

Mitsubishi L200 Latin NCAP crash test
Mitsubishi L200 Latin NCAP crash test | Latin NCAP via YouTube

In 1979, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created the New Car Assessment Program. The NCAP encouraged automakers to build safer vehicles, and consumers to buy them. The first NHTSA crash tests were developed through NCAP. And after the US NCAP, other countries around the world created their own. In Latin America and the Caribbean, vehicles are tested by the Latin NCAP.

Fiat Fullback
Fiat Fullback | Fiat

One of those vehicles is the Mitsubishi L200. Although FCA did partner with Mitsubishi to build a version of the L200 called the Fiat Fullback, it isn’t sold in the US. Why? One giant reason is the lack of front airbags. Which, as the Latin NCAP crash test shows, has a dramatic impact on safety.

With no airbags, the driver’s and front passenger’s heads just slam into the dashboard. The only thing keeping infant passengers from more-severe injuries are their child seats. The final Latin NCAP score? Out of a potential 5 stars, adult occupant safety scored 0. Child safety earned 2 stars.

You’re probably asking why the L200 had to be crash-tested anyway, given its lack of airbags. Shouldn’t that have automatically given it a 0 rating? Actually, no. To quote the Latin NCAP’s own site, the program is meant to inform all consumers “without taking into account their geographical differences or economics status. The cheapest vehicles are precisely those without these systems and are the ones consumers with more restricted resources can buy.”

In other words, if customers want a cheaper truck, sometimes that means getting one without airbags.

Older trucks are cheaper, but newer trucks are safer

Saving money by getting by with fewer safety systems is actually not as crazy as you’d think. With loan repayment plans getting longer and longer, consumers try to save money wherever possible. And in the case of the L200, that appears to be by skimping on airbags. And even in the US, it’s not like every pickup truck on the road has all the latest safety features. Trucks stick around for many years and miles before owners trade them in or scrap them.

But that shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be the case. As IIHS testing has shown, even a single year can make a big difference in terms of safety. From 2018 to 2019, the Toyota RAV4 went from “poor” to “good” in the small-overlap crash test. And the Ram 1500, just this year, was named an IIHS Top Safety Pick+.  Furthermore, the IIHS reported that many automakers selling vehicles in Latin NCAP countries reported they would make airbags standard equipment. The Latin NCAP has also started to expand the type of testing it performs. So hopefully, trucks like the L200 can soon be a thing of the past.

What still needs to be addressed about truck (and SUV) safety

IIHS vs NHTSA barriers
IIHS (white) vs NHTSA (yellow) barriers | IIHS

However, airbags alone won’t address every truck safety issue. Classic trucks may be overall less-safe than modern ones, but additional safety tech has come at a price. Trucks and SUVs have gotten so big, that the IIHS has had to beef up its crash-test barrier to match.

Even with modern safety equipment and airbags, SUVs don’t always perform well in crash tests. In 2018, ABC reports, both the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee received “poor” IIHS ratings. Both SUVs allowed significant amounts of their body to push into the cabin in crashes. The Jeep Grand Cherokee was particularly problematic, as the passenger dummy’s head went through the front airbag, and the side airbag failed to deploy. And even in some “good” SUVs, like the Honda Pilot and GMC Acadia, the dummy’s head slid off the front airbag.

2019 Ram 1500 IIHS crash test
2019 Ram 1500 IIHS crash test | IIHS

And trucks have safety problems even beyond that. The IIHS found that, while car-SUV crashes are no longer as deadly for car occupants as they were, that isn’t the case for car-truck crashes. Despite things like side-airbags and automatic braking, trucks are still a significant danger to passenger cars. Mostly because trucks are still heavy, tall vehicles. Physics favors the bigger object, regardless of airbags or crash structures.

Yes, you absolutely need airbags in trucks. But you also need much, much more.