She was in the passenger seat of a girlfriend's car when they made a U-turn into the path of an oncoming Jeep Grand Cherokee that was traveling at 45 miles per hour. The jeep smashed into Baglione's door.
Baglione suffered a severe injury to her head and was in a coma for seven weeks. Her side impact accident - in which the victim's car is "t-boned" by another vehicle or slams into a rigid object like a telephone pole - is the type that caused fatal head injuries to more than 4,000 people last year.
But crash tests done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicate an injury like Baglione's could be prevented by protection devices already available in some cars.
Potentially Lifesaving Difference
Take what happened three years ago to Linda Rasmussen of Plano, Texas. As she drove her daughter, Jennifer, to a friend's house, a pickup truck going an estimated 50 mph, broadsided her car as she made a left turn - bashing in Jennifer's door. Jennifer walked away with nothing more than a bruise on her shoulder. What made the difference between Baglione's and Rasmussen's crashes?
While the '89 Chevy Baglione was riding in had no side impact airbags, Rasmussen's '97 BMW had two types of air bags - a new one designed to protect the head and a more traditional side air bag that protects the torso. It's new technology and it saved Jennifer's life says the institute's director, Brian O'Neill. "A small amount of cushioning that you get from these inflatable side airbags for the head provide sufficient distance and energy absorption to reduce what would be fatal forces to the nonfatal level."
In the past three years, 16 crash tests have produced consistent results. Three sensors in the dummy's head tell the computer that without advanced protection bags, trauma to the head is fatal or nearly so at 18 mph.
BMW's X5 is the first sport utility vehicle equipped with the new bags. During the institute's test, the vehicle's side air bag dropped down and inflated as it was slammed into a rigid pole, just in time to cushion the dummy's head.
"This is a very violent crash and you're not going to come out of a crash like this unscathed," says O'Neil. "What is remarkable is that because of this kind of technology, you can come out of a crash like this and survive, without brain damage or fatal head injury."
O'Neill says what's unique about these air bags is their reliability. "In 100 percent of the cases, these things work, they're remarkable."
New Safety Standards Needed
The head protection comes in three designs, depending on the automaker and the Institute finds them all equally effective. They have been available since the 1997 model year, but the federal government is only now beginning preparing to test the new technology.
Sue Bailey is the administrator for government entity that sets auto standards, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Bailey has not seen the institute crash tests, and says NHTSA must collect data and perform its own crash tests. She does not think a federal head bag standard will be possible before 2003. "We want to be sure that what we're regulating does not create a hazard or more deaths from an inadvertent explosion of that airbag," she says.
O'Neill believes the government standards are too weak. NHTSA rates cars based on crash tests they conduct with a 3,000 pound sedan-style barrier which O'Neill says is outdated because 50 percent of passenger vehicles now are in the 5,000 pound range - indicating the public's preference for sport utility vehicles and light trucks. "The government does not assess whether [a] car provides protection for your head," he says, "It will assess whether it provides good protection for your torso but not your head." And O'Neill says that is not enough.
In the meantime, some manufacturers are installing head bags voluntarily, even in economy models. But O'Neill complains that NHTSA's consumer information does not adequately reward those manufacturers who offer headbags. "A manufacturer that puts in a head protection system for side impacts will get zero credit from the government in the consumer information program," he says.
Rasmussen says she's extremely lucky. She had no idea until after she totaled her car that the vehicle had head air bags. But, she says she'll never drive without them. "Those ended up making the difference between a tragic loss in my life and walking away thinking how fortunate we were."