By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/11/2004 7:14:03 PM ET 2004-05-11T23:14:03

Abigail Baglione was in a car without side airbags that was broadsided by a larger SUV.  She suffered such terrible head injuries that she was in a coma for seven weeks, then spent two years in rehab.

“If there had been a cushion I don’t think my injury would have been nearly as severe,” she said.

One quarter of all highway deaths come in side-impact crashes and often it’s a mismatch — a big, high-off-the-road pickup or SUV, slamming a smaller car — aimed right toward an occupant’s head.

So Wednesday, the U.S. government will propose new and tougher crash tests that would have the practical effect of forcing automakers to install more and better side airbags.

The tests would employ new dummies better able to measure impact to the side of the head and, for the first time, use some smaller dummies too to test the vulnerability of smaller women.  But most importantly it would add a new crash using a pole at an angle — a tougher test than used now — requiring better protection to offset it.

Insurance industry researcher Adrian Lund said, “What’s the difference between having side airbags and not having them? It’s literally life and death.”

Only a few vehicles come with side air bags now and often they’re the kind that pop-out from seat backs.  But to pass the new crash tests it may take additional devices like so-called ‘side air curtains’ or ‘tubes’ both considered more protective of the head.

Abigail Baglione says that could have made the difference for her. “It’s worth it to spend the extra $100-200 to put in these airbags," she said.  "It’s worth it.  It’s worth it.  I mean my life has been forever changed — like demolished.”

All this could add up to a billion dollars in new costs to implement.  But the auto industry has previously said it supports side airbags and promised to try getting them in all new cars by decade’s end.

On Wednesday, the government will say its proposed new crash tests would assure that and save 700 to 1,000 lives a year.

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