Monday, May 13, 2013

The truth about airbags

There are two distinct opinions on airbags. Some people say that airbags save lives and improve safety of cars. Others think that airbags inflate so violently that they may kill you.


Let’s take a look at a 30-MPH frontal crash into a solid barrier, which is equivalent to a frontal 30-MPH collision with a car of the same weight. Experts say that it is roughly equivalent to a fall from the three-story high building.

The vehicle comes from 30 MPH to a complete stop in 65-90 milliseconds (0.065-0.09 s.) which is faster than a blink of an eye (100 milliseconds). GM estimates say that the load from your body at the steering column reaches 2000-2300 pounds.

So what would you rather hit, the sold surface or the airbag?

About 50 to 60 milliseconds after the impact, you are being moved forward 5-6 inches in your seatbelt and your face and chest are being buried in the inflating airbag. I wouldn’t want my face to be “buried” in the dashboard or the steering column instead, do you?


Early designs of airbags had to conform to the government standards that required them to protect unbelted occupants. Since unbelted occupants move forward during the crash much faster than the ones who wear a seatbelt, these early airbags had to inflate faster, with a higher force. The speed at which they inflate was about 100-200 MPH.

These airbags had to be powerful and large to pass the standard test – protect 175-pound driver in a frontal 30-MPH crash into the solid barrier.

By 1995, the government was starting to see the alarming problem. During low-speed accidents (sometimes even 10 MPH) unbelted children and small adults, passengers were being hurt and sometimes killed by the force of inflating airbag. During severe braking that preceded crashes, unbelted passengers were moved forward, towards the airbag cover, so when the airbag inflated, they were too close and were hurt by the inflating airbag.

According to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), there was one factor common to all who died as a result of a n airbag deployment – they were too close when the airbag inflated, and many of them didn’t wear a seatbelt. 


Today experts agree that the airbag is not the primary safety measure, it should be used in conjunction with a seatbelt. That’s why airbags are called SRS – Supplemental Restraint System.

The new airbags do not have to meet the original standard of protection unbelted occupants. Carmakers install depowered airbags, that inflate with less force. Some airbags have two stages of deployment – depending on the force of impact; they deploy either at full power or in “depowered” mode.

Today, new-generation airbag systems evaluate passenger weight, position, seatbelt usage, and force of impact and choose the deployment scenario best suited for the situation. Example: airbags in my 2004 Infiniti G35.


Statistics show that as of October 1995, 3.8 million driver airbags and 554,000 passenger airbags have been deployed. 84 children and 62 adults have been killed by the airbags (total 152). However, it is estimated, that 4758 people have been saved by airbags.
If you play the odds, airbags are much better bet.

Additionally, some cases of injury and death caused by airbags are related to improper seatbelt and child seat use.


• Airbags should be used in conjunction with seatbelts, without them the airbag may injure or kill you. 
• In addition, it is recommended to sit as far from the airbag cover as possible (minimum ten inches from the airbag cover to your breastbone).
• If you have side impact airbags, sit upright, do not lean against the door.
• Children under 12 should ride in the rear seat, if possible.
• Children in rear-faced seats should never be placed in the front passenger seat in the passenger –airbag equipped vehicle.
• If you must place a child in the front seat of a pickup truck, don’t forget to turn the passenger airbag off, if the car has a “airbag-off” switch.

Have a safe trip!

P.S. Majority of information, numbers and statistics are taken from the car magazines and GM.

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