Ron is a retired engineer and manager for IBM and other high-tech companies. He writes extensively and in depth about modern technology.
I’ve owned my car for almost 20 years. In that time, not once have the installed airbags deployed or otherwise made their presence felt. It’s been literally “out of sight, out of mind.” Yet, the threat of serious injury that could occur if my airbags ever did deploy makes that lack of awareness dangerous.
Airbags Save Lives
The airbags on all modern cars and trucks are housed behind panels marked SRS, which stands for Supplemental Restraint System (or Safety Restraint System). At a minimum, a vehicle will have an SRS enclosure in the steering wheel, and behind a panel on the passenger side of the front seat.
When a car or truck undergoes sudden deceleration, indicating that a crash has occurred, the airbags are designed to quickly deploy to prevent the occupants from being injured by slamming into the steering wheel or other structures in the vehicle.
And they work. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) credits frontal airbags with saving 50,457 lives between 1987 and 2017.
Airbags Can Also Can Cause Injury
Yet there is a downside. As useful as airbags are in keeping us safe during a collision, they can also be a significant hazard, both during a crash and at other times.
In order for an airbag to do its job when a crash occurs, it must deploy with explosive force. There may be only milliseconds between the time the airbag controller senses a collision and the instant an occupant of the vehicle slams into the steering wheel or instrument panel. In those few moments, the airbag must expand to full inflation, then begin to release the gas that inflated it (not air but mostly nitrogen) so as to have a cushioning effect when the person hits it.
Whenever an occupant is positioned in the vehicle so that a deploying airbag hits them while it is still inflating with enormous force, rather than after it has begun to deflate, there is a great possibility of injury. This is especially true of children, and of smaller adults, who tend to position themselves closer to the airbag enclosure than do individuals with longer limbs.
Don't Sit Too Close to the Steering Wheel!
Michigan personal injury lawyer Steven Gursten observes that drivers with shorter legs, often women, but also many elderly people, tend to sit as close as they can to the steering wheel. Individuals who are under 5’4″ tall are especially prone to push the driver’s seat to its most forward position. This puts them at great risk of injury when an airbag explodes outward from the steering column at 200 miles per hour, generating a force of 2000 pounds.
How to Avoid Being Hurt by a Deploying Airbag
So, how can we protect ourselves from being injured by the airbags that are designed to keep us safe? Here are recommendations from NHTSA, as well as state transportation departments in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
- Always wear your lap and shoulder safety belts. Airbags are designed to supplement seat belts in an accident, not replace them. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, you are almost 10 times more likely to die in an accident where an airbag deploys if you are not wearing a seat belt than if you are.
- Sit as far away as you can from the steering wheel or passenger side dashboard. According to NHTSA, distance from the airbag is the most important risk factor in airbag safety. NHTSA recommends allowing 10 to 12 inches between your chest and the airbag enclosure.
- Always try to keep an adjustable steering wheel tilted down in a level or parallel position.
- Hold the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 o’clock or 8 and 4 o’clock positions. This prevents your wrists or arms from being broken or forcibly hitting you in the face when an airbag deploys.
- Position your thumbs on the top or outside rim of the steering wheel, not on the inside of the wheel.
- NEVER place children under the age of one in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger-side airbag.
- Place children 12 years old and younger in the back seat, and make sure they are properly buckled up or restrained in a child restraint device. According to the Delaware Office of Highway Safety, at least 68 children who were riding in the front seat of a vehicle when the passenger side airbag deployed died as a result of the deployment.
- Move the passenger side front seat back as far as possible if there is no alternative to having a child ride there in a vehicle with a passenger-side airbag. Make sure the child is properly buckled up.
- Take care that children are secured into an approved child passenger restraint system and that children under the age of 18 are buckled up. These are legal responsibilities of the driver.
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Never Place Rear-Facing Infant Seats in the Front Seat of the Car!
There is wide agreement that rear-facing infant car seats are the safest. However, placing a child in the front seat of the car is extremely dangerous. If the passenger-side airbag deploys because of a crash, or even by accident, an infant that would normally be well protected in a rear-facing safety seat could sustain serious injuries from the force of the airbag expansion.
Parents who are driving may be tempted to place the car seat in front because they want to be able to check on their child, and a rear-facing child seat blocks their view. To overcome that objection, several companies are producing specially designed back seat mirrors that allow the driver to watch the child in the back of the car.
The Takata Airbag Recall: Largest in History
Airbag safety became headline news in 2015 when a major manufacturer, the Takata Corporation, admitted that 33.8 million of its airbags were defective, and agreed to recall them. Vehicles made by 14 different automakers were affected. The faulty bags contain defective inflator mechanisms that can break apart with explosive force, sending a potentially lethal shower of metal shards flying through the passenger compartment of the vehicle. At least seven deaths and more than 100 injuries have so far been linked to these flawed airbags.
This remains an ongoing problem because many thousands of recalled cars and trucks have not yet been repaired. Drivers and passengers in those vehicles remain at risk.
Vehicles manufactured between 2001 and 2015 by the following automakers may be affected:
Acura, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota
If you have a vehicle produced by any of these automakers during the period listed above, you should act without delay to find out whether it has been recalled, and if so, have it repaired. The potential for grave injury or even death caused by these defective airbags remains very real.
Some Car Models Should Be Taken Off the Road Immediately!
On June 30, 2016, NHTSA announced that the airbags on certain car models have been found to be so dangerous that owners should immediately stop driving these vehicles until the installed airbag mechanisms are replaced. The announcement reads:
New test data on a particular subset of defective Takata air bag inflators in certain model-year 2001-2003 Honda and Acura vehicles show a far higher risk of ruptures during air bag deployment, prompting an urgent call from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to ensure that unrepaired vehicles in this population are found and fixed before they cause further injuries or fatalities.
A list of these high-risk vehicles can be seen on the NHTSA website.
You can view a comprehensive list of all the affected models, and links to manufacturers' recall web pages, on the Consumer Reports website.
Airbags May Deploy by Accident
One final thing drivers and passengers need to be aware of: Airbags may deploy on their own, even when there is no collision. Ford, for example, had to recall about 144,000 of its F-150 pickups from the 2005-2006 model years because the driver-side airbags were found to sometimes deploy unexpectedly. So, all drivers and passengers in a car or truck need to be prepared for the possibility that an airbag may suddenly inflate, even if the vehicle is sitting still.
Most of us will never experience the deployment of an airbag. But if it ever does happen, by implementing these safety steps, we'll be helping our airbags keep us safe without injuring us in the process.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Ronald E Franklin