"Aren't dual front airbags a compulsory item now? Why is the base model Nissan Almera E grade still sold with a single airbag?" This is a very common question asked by car buyers.
The reason for this confusion dates back to 2011, when the then Minister of Transport Kong Chong Ha announced that passenger vehicles sold after 2012 are required to have at least two airbags. The minister was most probably ill-informed by his advisors because there is no ruling under the Malaysian Road Transport Act that says airbags are a compulsory feature.
Even in Europe, bureaucrats at the European Union have not legislated airbags, irrespective of their count, as a compulsory feature.
Only the US have laws requiring the fitment of airbags.
Malaysia's road transport regulations follow the standards set by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Despite its name, UNECE regulations are adopted not only in Europe but also many other countries outside of Europe. Malaysia is a signatory under the WP.29 World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, which requires Malaysia to gradually adopt a total of 67 UNECE regulations between 2012 and 2015.
The regulation most related to the fitment of airbags is UNECE regulation R94, which governs the protection of vehicle occupants in a frontal collision. Regulation R94 was enforced in Malaysia effective 1-January 2012. While the said minister mentioned that this is applicable on all cars sold after 2012, what he should have said is that this is applicable to all cars that have their vehicle type approval completed after 1-January 2012.
Vehicle type approval is a compulsory process for all new models before they can be introduced to the market. This process is to be done by the Road Transport Department (JPJ). As a single type approval document can be used for all models that share the similar specifications, usually only one example of each model to be sold is required to be submitted to JPJ.
If for example a vehicle does not meet the said R94 regulations but had its type approval completed before 1-January 2012, the said model can still continue to be sold in Malaysia.
The R94 regulation does not specifically mandate the compulsory fitment of an airbag. It merely lists a minimum standard of protection for the vehicle's front occupants. Among the requirements are:
As you can see, the regulation only stipulates the objectives to be achieved. The method and technology pathway used to achieve this level of crash safety protection is up to the car manufacturer to decide.
Of course, airbags are generally the most commonly adopted solution. Regulations imposed on airbags are only related to the placement of warning labels and guidelines explaining the proper usage of airbags.
If a manufacturer is able to meet the above criteria without having to resort to using an airbag, then it is free to omit an airbag.
In the recent ASEAN NCAP frontal collision crash test, the single-airbag Nissan Almera E scored a four-star rating, achieving 12.74 points (maximum of 16). The score is higher than two other vehicles tested which are equipped with more airbags - the Indonesian-market Daihatsu Xenia (12.34 points) and the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (12.08 points). Both the Xenia and Pajero Sport has dual front airbags versus the Almera's driver's side airbag, but the additional airbag count did not result in better passive safety performance for the either Daihatsu or the Mitsubishi.
Another example is the recently-launched Volkswagen XL1, which does not have a passenger airbag. This is because the car features a staggered seating arrangement: the passenger seat is positioned further behind than the driver's seat and is slightly offset from the centre. This arrangement maximises shoulder room in the small two-seater car.
Another benefit from using this arrangement is that the passenger is seated further away from the dashboard, thus there is less risk of coming into contact with it in a frontal collision. Volkswagen is therefore able to reduce cost by not having to install a front passenger airbag while still maintaining excellent crash safety performance.
To understand more about airbags and tips on how to use them properly, read our earlier story Five Things You Should Know About Airbags.