Know Your Airbags
Seat belts were the original form of passenger restraint in automobiles. They started to appear in cars in the 1950s. There have been many debates about seatbelt safety, especially relating to children, but over time much of the United States has adopted mandatory seat-belt laws. Today we have concrete statistics that show that the use of seat belts has saved countless thousands of lives that might have been otherwise lost in automobile accidents.
Like seat belts, the concept of the airbag, a soft pillow to land against during a crash, has also been around for many years. The first patent on an inflatable crash-landing device for aircraft was actually filed during World War II. Originally there were many technical challenges to overcome but in the 1980s the first commercial airbags began to appear in automobiles. They were so successful that in model year 1998, it became a Federal requirement that all new cars sold in the United States were required to have airbags on both driver and passenger sides.
The goal of an airbag is simply to slow the passenger’s forward motion as evenly as possible in a fraction of a second. The whole process starts with signal from a motion sensor. Motion sensors are chip-based accelerometers that continuously measure forces on moving cars. When one of these sensors detects a large collision-level force, it sends an electrical pulse to the automobile’s airbag inflation system. Typically this ignites a charge that produces a hot blast of nitrogen gas which drives the airbag out from its storage site in the car at more than 200mph. The inflated airbag, along with seatbelts, prevents passengers from being thrown very far forward. A second or so after inflation, the gas quickly dissipates through tiny holes in the bag, thus deflating the bag post-collision. Even though the whole inflation process happens in only one-twenty-fifth of a second, serious injury is usually avoided. The powdery substance released from the airbag, by the way, is regular cornstarch or talcum powder, which is used by the airbag manufacturers to keep the bags pliable and lubricated while they’re in storage.
Since the early days of auto airbags, experts have cautioned that airbags are to be used in tandem with seat belts. Seat belts are still necessary because airbags originally worked only in front-end collisions occurring at more than 10 mph. Only seat belts could help in side swipes and crashes (although side-mounted airbags are becoming common now), rear-end collisions and secondary impacts. Even as the technology advances, airbags still are only effective when used with a lap/shoulder seat belt.
It didn’t take long to learn that the force of an airbag can hurt those who are too close to it, particularly children. Researchers have determined that the risk zone for driver airbags is the first 2 to 3 inches of inflation. So, placing yourself 10 inches from your driver airbag gives you a clear margin of safety. The rules are different for children. An airbag can seriously injure or even kill an unbuckled child who is sitting too close. Experts agree that children 12 and under should ride buckled up in a properly installed, age-appropriate car seat in the rear seat of a car.
In certain special cases, car owners can request the ability to deactivate their airbags. Generally speaking, you can’t deactivate your airbag without installing a retrofit on-off switch. However, if a retrofit on-off switch is not yet available (from the vehicle manufacturer) for your car, the NHTSA will authorize airbag deactivation on a case-by-case basis under appropriate conditions.
Go online and look for the NHTSA brochure, “Airbags and On-Off Switches: Information for an Informed Decision,” and the accompanying form, Request for airbag On-Off Switch. This information will allow you to decide whether disabling your cars airbag system will make your car safer under the conditions that you typically drive in.
Source: Priority 1 Automotive Group