Airbags, like other safety features on vehicles, are things we tend to ignore until we need them. Fortunately, they almost always work and they have been effective in saving lives since they were first introduced.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that airbags saved nearly 40,000 lives between 1987 and 2012. Mandatory for front-seat passengers on all vehicles built since 1998, a majority of vehicles on the road are now equipped with airbags. Even so, many of us have no idea how they work and what to do to make sure they do so properly.

How Airbags Work

airbags_deployedFrontal airbags are stored in the steering wheel and dashboard of cars, SUVs, and trucks. When there's a moderate-to-severe impact on the front bumper, a signal is sent from the airbag’s electronic control unit to the inflator in the airbag.

An igniter in the inflator starts a chemical reaction that produces a harmless gas, which inflates the air bag in less than 1/20th of a second.

The inflated airbag cushions the head and upper body to prevent them from striking the vehicle’s interior during a crash.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, frontal airbags reduce driver fatalities in frontal crashes by 29 percent and front seat passenger fatalities by 32 percent.

Other Types of Airbags

While not mandatory, many newer cars are equipped with airbags that offer protection in non-frontal crashes. These airbag protection systems include the following:

  • Side airbags. Also called torso airbags, these are mounted in the outer edge of the seat itself and are designed to protect the torso in a side collision. Most cars have side airbags in the front seats only, but some automakers offer rear seat-mounted airbags as well.
  • Side curtain airbags. Side curtain airbags are usually mounted in the roof of the car, above the windows. In a side collision or rollover, they deploy downward, covering the windows like curtains. Unlike most airbags, which deflate right away, side curtain airbags usually stay inflated for several seconds in order to provide extended roll-over protection. Most side curtain airbags protect both front and back seats.
  • Inflatable seatbelts. Currently only offered by Ford Motor Company, these rear-seat safety harnesses inflate in a collision to distribute impact forces more evenly, protected vulnerable back-seat passengers such as children and the elderly.

These types of airbags are standard on some makes and models of cars and are available as options on others.

Dangers of Airbags

Anything that works as quickly and with as much force as an airbag also has the potential to cause harm. While airbags save many more lives than they take, it's important to understand the risks they might present.

Some dangers of airbags include the following:

  • Risks to children and petite passengers. Airbags deploy with a powerful force and if the driver or passenger is sitting too close, they can be injured. Short drivers should sit as far away from the steering wheel as possible. Children 12 and younger should always be in the back seat, as they may be too small to withstand the impact of the airbag safely. In some cars, the passenger-side airbag is deactivated when a small passenger is sitting in the seat. Infant car seats should never be installed in the front seat.
  • Importance of seatbelts. Airbags are most effective when the occupant is positioned correctly in the seat. Wearing a seatbelt ensures correct placement. When a driver or passenger isn't wearing a seatbelt, the airbag could cause serious injury.
  • Defects. When an airbag has a design or manufacturing defect, it can fail to deploy or deploy with so much force that the occupants are injured. The recent massive recall of Takata airbags is a shocking example of what can go wrong with airbags.
  • Counterfeit airbags. When a car has been in a collision and the airbag has deployed, the airbag will need to be replaced. If it's not replaced by an authorized dealer, it could be a poor-quality fake. These counterfeit airbags are less likely to deploy, and more likely to cause injuries when they do.

What to Do After A Car Crash

If any of your airbags—frontal or side—deploy in a crash, you must immediately take the car to the dealership to have the airbag replaced. Airbags cannot be reused and it's not a repair you should do yourself or take to an unauthorized repair shop. The airbag likely saved your life once, why would you risk not returning it to its original condition?

Have You Been Injured In A Kansas City Area Car Accident?

If you've been injured in a car accident you need to speak with an experienced car accident lawyer as soon as possible. Contact us online or call our Kansas City office directly at 816.471.5111 to schedule your free consultation.


James Roswold
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James Roswold is a Kansas & Missouri personal injury, workers comp, and medical malpractice attorney.