Air Bags in Your Car: Potential Dangers, Quirks and EffectivenessUpdated Sept. 30, 2020
Since 1998, all new passenger vehicles have been manufactured with frontal airbags installed in the steering wheel and dashboard, to protect vehicle occupants during head-on collisions. During moderate to severe collisions (occurring at speeds great than 15mph), these airbags will rapidly deploy and inflate, to cushion your body and reduce the severity of the impact. Airbag technology has advanced considerably since the safety feature was first introduced in the 1960s. Every year, airbags save thousands of lives.
While airbags are known to decrease the risk of death or serious injury resulting from a collision, they can cause injury if not used as intended.
The dangers of improper air bag use
If you are not correctly positioned and secured in your seat when a collision occurs, there is a chance the car’s airbag will injure you when it deploys. Airbags deploy and inflate at an incredible speed – around 200mph. If you are too close to the airbag deployment zone or thrown forward towards the airbag because you’re not wearing a seat belt, you could be seriously hurt or killed as it inflates.
It is important to realize that instances of people being seriously injured or killed by frontal airbags are extremely rare. Airbags save far more people than they kill; the number of airbag-related deaths in the United States has been steadily declining each year, for the past few decades. Just 296 people have been killed by airbags since the time they were introduced up to 2008, according to one report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA). In that same period, airbags saved well over 30,000 lives. Do not let an irrational fear of airbag injury lead you to remove or deactivate your vehicle’s airbags.
Of the 296 airbag-related deaths mentioned above, some 191 involved children. Children younger than 12 years old should never be seated in front of an airbag, as they may be suffocated or fatally injured when it deploys. The remaining deaths involved adult drivers, many of whom either were not wearing a seat belt or were sitting too close to the steering wheel when the airbag inflated.
To reduce the risk of airbag-related injury:
- You should always be positioned with at least a ten-inch gap between your chest and the steering wheel.
- Position your hands on the lower half of the steering wheel, with your palms on the outside of the wheel and your knuckles facing outward (to minimize the risk that your arms will be thrown back into your face).
- If your steering wheel angle can be adjusted, tilt it slightly downward so that it points at your chest rather than your face.
- Always fasten your seat belt.
Air bag manufacturing defects
Throughout the 2000s, airbag-related deaths had dropped to fewer than 10 each year. This is thought to be due to continuing advancements in airbag technology and better airbag safety awareness among motorists. Since that time, there has been a spike in annual airbag-related deaths, due to a widespread manufacturing fault which has affected over 40 million vehicles around the country. These vehicles have now largely been recalled and repaired. The latest news on vehicle recalls can be found on the NHTSA website.
Car owners must ensure their vehicle’s airbags are purchased and fitted using reputable suppliers and technicians. Fake airbags are rare, though they are considerably more likely to malfunction and cause injury during a collision.
Child passenger safety
Do not allow children under 12 years old to ride in the front seat if your car has a frontal passenger air bag in the door or dashboard, as they are more likely to be injured or killed if they airbag deploys. Equally, children secured in rear-facing car seats must never be positioned in front of an active airbag. If it were to deploy following a collision, the infant would likely be crushed to death.
Deactivating an air bag
Many modern vehicles are built with on-off switches which allow the driver to deactivate the passenger side airbag. You may need to switch off the front passenger airbag in rare circumstances, where the risk of injury should the airbag deploy outweighs the safety benefits of the device. This would be the case when:
- A child under 12 years old or an infant in a rear-facing car seat must be positioned in the front seat, due to a medical condition or lack of space in the back seat.
- A passenger who must ride in the front seat has a medical condition which makes them very likely to be injured by the airbag. If you care for a person with a medical condition that may cause them to be incorrectly positioned in front of an airbag, you should seek advice from doctor before deactivating the device.
Occasionally, it may be necessary to remove or deactivate the driver’s side frontal airbag. This would usually only be the case if the driver of the vehicle is under 4’6” tall and consequently cannot sit in a safe position relative to the airbag.
Not all vehicles are equipped with airbag deactivation switches. If you need to turn off either of the frontal airbags due to extenuating circumstances and do not have a deactivation switch in your car, you may apply to the NHTSA to see if the airbag can be permanently deactivated or removed. This option should only be considered under extreme circumstances, as you will not be able to reactivate the airbag easily, should you need to.
Side impact air bags
Since 2009, all car manufacturers have been required by law to phase in side airbags in new vehicles. Now, practically all new vehicles come with side airbags as standard, to protect vehicle occupants during side-impact collisions.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), side-impact crashes killed around 8,225 people in the United States, in 2007 alone. In 1980, 31% of collision deaths occurred in side-impact crashes, whereas nearly half of all traffic deaths resulted from side-impact crashes by 2004. This is thought to be as a result of frontal airbags preventing fatal injuries in head-on crashes. It may also be linked to the increasing number of SUVs on our roads, as these vehicles cause more damage when striking another vehicle side-on.
By protecting the head and torso, side airbags reduce the risk of fatal injury during side-on crashes by around 37 to 52%, depending on the make and model of the vehicle. These airbags are smaller than frontal airbags and will deploy from the door or roof of the car, in both the front and back seats of the vehicle.
Replacing used airbags
In most vehicles, airbags cannot be deployed more than once. If your airbag has deployed during a collision, it will need to be replaced by a certified technician. Otherwise, it will not deploy properly and could cause injury should you get into another crash. In some vehicles, an accidentally deployed airbag can be reused (check this out with the car’s manufacturer). Even if this is possible, the airbag will still need to be reset by a qualified mechanic or airbag technician.
How effective are airbags?
When used properly and in conjunction with seat belts, airbags are incredibly effective life-saving devices. Data released by the NHTSA reveals that in 2017, frontal airbags saved 2,790 lives. Between 1987 and 2017, they saved a total of 50,457 lives. Together, frontal airbags and seat belts reduce the risk of a traffic collision being fatal by over 80%.
The risk of death or serious injury occurring in side-on or rollover crashes is till considerable in vehicles which only have frontal airbags, as they are designed to protect occupants thrown forward at the moment of impact. For this reason, most modern vehicles are built with side airbags too. In a few years, it is likely that updated national crash data will prove side airbags to be similarly effective life-saving devices.
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