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 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 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008.
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 ten 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 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.
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.
Airbag Safety for Children
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, 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 web site.
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 2005-6 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
Tyson on September 16, 2019:
Hi I wanted to add in that my driver side airbag deployed after my car was hit lightly. The airbag force was so strong it caused a major concussion. The post concussion symptoms lasted for two years. Do you have any recommendations on safer airbags/vehicles to drive?
Wreckd on August 19, 2019:
This past weekend, August 18th to be exact, I finally had a wreck where the airbags deployed. We swerved to miss a deer and went into the grass on the opposite side of the road. When we started trying to turn to get the car headed back towards the road, it began to slide...and impacted the drivers front corner with a power pole.
Best estimate by those on scene was 50-60 mph. We took the pole down clean. It also had no lines running to it for some reason so no power lines were pulled down.
So we hit the pole and come to a stop.
I get out and realize that I'm uninjured. Not a scratch anywhere. Not one bump, scrape, nor bruise. All front airbags deployed but somehow, I managed to stay away from the thing and receive no injuries from it. It didn't even hit my arms. I'm not sure if I pulled them into my chest at the last second or what. I imagine it has to do with the fact that I keep as much distance as I can between me and the dash/airbags/steering wheel, for just this exact reason. Pretty sure I learned that in one of the defensive driving courses I took over the years.
Whatever the case, it saved me from possible injury and I'm eternally grateful that I knew to even do that. To be blunt, I honestly thought my life was over the moment we hit the pole...then I realized I was still breathing and that wasn't blood under my nose, it was snot from me exhaling extremely hard on impact. Lmao.
That was about 36 hours ago outside a small town in North Texas. About 16 miles from the Oklahoma panhandle border. Which was about 10 hours from home. Yea, it sucked. Someone came and got us, thankfully. They left about 30 mins after the wreck and drove straight there.
MotoringEssential on December 09, 2017:
Thanks for the discovery that there are airbags that deploy even when there is no crash
Bobbi McDoanld on September 10, 2016:
My son was given a loaner vehicle from the Chevy house while they fixed his truck. It was a 2016 Chevy 1500 4wd truck with 141 miles. He was driving and the side air bags deployed without an accident. The chevy house is trying to get his insurance to pay for damage. He took photos and video of the truck to prove there was no damage. I am worried they will try and make him liable for the damages when it was obviously a mechanical malfunction.
Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 16, 2016:
Hi Faith Reaper. We are so used to taking the airbags in our vehicles for granted that the Takata recall comes as a big shock to most people. My car is not on the recall list, but it's still important to know that airbags can pose a risk at any time. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Faith Reaper from southern USA on June 04, 2016:
Thanks for all of these important safety tips here, Ron. I will need to check into the recall for both of my vehicles, and make necessary seat and steering wheel adjustments.
That is a scary thought that an airbag could deploy with being in an accident, as that would actually cause an accident.
Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 28, 2016:
MsDora, sorry to hear about your accident. I'm glad your airbag injury wasn't more serious. For most of us it never crosses our minds that we need to think about our airbags as a potential danger, so I really hope more people will be alerted to that possibility. Thanks for sharing.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 28, 2016:
Thanks for these helpful bits of advice. I thought I was doing all the right things but I had an accident and suffered burns from the airbag; perhaps I was too close. Will study this.
Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 28, 2016:
Thanks, lambservant. And I'm really glad you're going to check if your vehicle was recalled. It's important!
Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on March 28, 2016:
Very informative. I'm going to look into the recall. Thanks.