Airbags have been around for 20 years, but only recently has the number of North American installations begun to surge.

That’s because today’s auto makers are looking to cram more safety systems into vehicle interiors. Plus, economies of scale mean innovative safety technology no longer need be the exclusive domain of luxury vehicles whose buyers can afford the added costs.

Other factors driving the movement include growing consumer awareness, increasing government regulations and continued technical advancements.

The bottom line is such equipment clearly saves lives.

These days there’s everything from front side, curtain and various alternative airbags, such as those for the knees and feet, to downward-firing airbags mounted in the leading edge of a vehicle’s headliner currently being tested by an automotive supplier.

Experts say integrating more airbags in new vehicles only can be accomplished by making the systems smaller and fitting them into alternative locations.

But while consumers should applaud such developments, the growing number of airbags in vehicles is making the work of emergency personnel much more difficult. That’s because they usually have less than 20 minutes to extricate trapped occupants and get them to the hospital.

So says Mark Uttley, an emergency rescue-training consultant for the Windsor, Ont., Canada, Fire Dept., who recently told attendees at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show in Detroit there is a need for better cooperation between rescuers and auto makers.

“We want to know your business,” he says, pointing out airbags are inflated by pyrotechnic gas charges that are pressurized up to 7,000 psi (483 bar). These inflators become little bombs when they are heated or cut through with hydraulic emergency tools, creating potential injury for both the trapped passengers and the people trying to save them.

Mercedes has taken a major step in addressing this problem with its new ’07 S-Class sedan. The car features lines etched into the front and rear window frames that indicate where it is safe to cut through the vehicle’s roof structure.

However, industry experts argue that as vehicles continue to differentiate and market segments fragment into ever-smaller niches, it will become more difficult for auto makers to incorporate a standard for airbag components and locations.

Uttley says better education of rescue personnel by auto makers and a standard method of marking airbag component locations would be a big help.

Arguably, car buyers have a responsibility to be up to speed on the issue, ask questions of dealers and make their concerns heard. Nothing brings change to the marketplace faster than consumer demand.

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com