Side-impact crashes accounted for 11 percent of the belted front occupant fatalities in nonrollover impacts between 2004 and 2009, according to the U.S: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's fatality analysis reporting system database. The impacts involved 1999 model or newer vehicles.
GM said fatalities in which the occupant is on the nonstruck side of the vehicle represent 29 percent of all the belted front occupant fatalities in side impacts.
"The front center airbag is not required by federal regulation, and no other airbag in passenger vehicles today offers the type of restraint and cushioning this airbag is designed to provide for front occupants," said Scott Thomas, senior staff engineer in GM's advanced restraint systems, in a statement.
GM and Japanese supplier Takata Corp. developed the airbag over a three-year period.
"The front center airbag has real potential to save lives in side crashes," Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said in a statement. "GM and Takata are to be commended for taking the lead in this important area."