Airbags have existed in America since the early 1970’s as a revolutionary device in auto safety. Despite the protection gained from airbags, some risks are involved as well. By being well-informed and taking precautionary measures with airbags, they can be beneficial for your car’s overall safety features.

History of Airbags

Airbags were officially invented in 1968 by Allen Breed as a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles.” The Ford Company built the first experimental models in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the Chrysler company finally offered airbag restraining systems as standard equipment. Airbag devices are now and have been mandatory in all cars in the United States since 1998.

Types of Airbags

There are essentially two types of airbags: frontal, and side airbags. New, advanced airbag systems will automatically determine when and which airbags will inflate. Airbags’ sensor systems can also determine the power with which they inflate. The level of inflation power in the frontal airbag is determined by:

  1. occupant size
  2. seat position
  3. seat belt usage
  4. severity of crash

Within side airbags, three different positions are common for placement. These include: chest (or torso), head, or a combination head and chest.

The Physics of Airbags: How do they work?

Airbags may seem like cuddly pillows, but their function is better described as chaos management. This is attained by a quick burst of “contained and directed explosion.” These explosions are the result of nitrogen gas shooting into the nylon-fabric packs  (Surprisingly, airbags are in fact not filled with “air”). They are primarily suited to aid in the protection of seat-belt wearing individuals, although federal regulations now require them to be tested for unbelted passengers as well.

The deployment of the airbag has to be nearly instantaneous to an auto collision. A tiny device called a Sensing and Diagnostic module (SDM) compares the deceleration of the car with measurements of door-pressure sensors and other calibration monitors. If the SDM’s threshold is released, the electrical power is ignited.

If the inflation module is set off, a chemical, typically sodium azide, creates a rapid chemical reaction. The reaction produces nitrogen gas which inflates the bag. The airbag bursts out of its protective cover providing a cushioned support of forward and some lateral movement. Miraculously, all of this takes place in about one thirtieth of a second.

 

Potential Injuries from Airbags

The following are some scenarios where people have been hurt by airbags, however, only 2.5% of motorists involved in car collisions receive serious injuries from airbags.

  • High Speeds: cars traveling faster than 100 mph are much more likely to sustain lasting injuries, including broken bones and skin abrasions.
  • More common injuries include: burns to faces and arms, coughing fits, asthma attacks (as a result of the chemical reaction)
  • As it is covered in the following section, failing to wear a seat belt is the single largest indicator of serious injury resulting from an airbag inflating.
  • It is extremely unlikely that the igniting chemical, sodium azide (which is poisonous), will be exposed to outside air. Cars that have airbags installed previous to the new standardization of 1998 should be inspected by professionals to ensure they will function properly.

Seat Belts and Airbags: They Go Together

Perhaps some naive motorists claim that because their cars have airbags, they will be fully protected from harm in the case of an accident. This is a fallacy that creates a misplaced sense of security. The National Safety Council has reported that airbags deployed on an unbelted passenger can cause serious cervical spine injuries.  Even in incidents where a car is moving at low speeds and is undamaged, these injuries are still a risk. If a passenger is not wearing a seat belt, the NSC states the following can take place:

The Cervical spine can be damaged when it is compressed against the shoulders during a collision or when the head is violently jerked either backwards or forwards, causing injuries to the muscles and ligaments of the neck

Dr. William F. Donaldson III, used data gathered from a Pennsylvania trauma
database to identify crashes resulting in spinal cord injuries from 1990 to 2002, including over 5,000 cases of spinal injuries caused by automobile accidents. The results were decisive: the relative risk of cervical spine fracture was 70 percent higher for drivers using an airbag alone compared to drivers who used an airbag and seat belt.

How to Avoid Airbag Deployment Injuries

  • If an airbag has been deployed, take special caution not to inhale any fumes surrounding the crash site.
  • Undeployed airbags at the scene of a crash can still go off unexpectedly, and thus emergency personnel and other victims will still be at risk.
  • Avoid touching the steering column after the ignition of the airbags; it will be very hot.
  • Hold the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 o’clock or 8 and 4 o’clock positions. This prevents your wrists and arms from being broken or forcibly hitting you when an airbag deploys. Position your thumbs on the top or outside rim of the steering wheel, not on the inside of the wheel.
  • If you have an adjustable steering wheel keep it in a level or parallel position.
  • The most obvious, yet, crucial measure is to buckle up.

Child Safety Warnings

Airbag safety in regards to children should be of utmost importance due to the heightened risk of injury. One CDC study found that in one year more than 618,000 children ages 0-12 rode in vehicles without the use of a child safety seat, booster seat, or a seat belt at least some of the time. Even when proper car seats and booster chairs are utilized, they are done improperly which increases the risk of injury by 72%. Here are some simple measures that you can take to combat these risks.

  • Child safety seats reduce the risk of death in passenger cars by 71% for infants, and by 54% for toddlers ages 1 to 4 years.
  • Booster seats reduce the risk for serious injury by 45% for children ages 4 to 8 years.
  • NEVER place a child under 12 in the front seat of a car. Airbags can injure or kill children in a crash that might have otherwise been survivable.

There is also strong evidence to support community education programs and enforcement campaigns for child safety and seat belt wearing. For further research, please review these guidelines for parents and caregivers.

At Christensen & Hymas, we encourage all motorists to learn about proper auto safety, especially when it comes to airbags and combining them with wearing seat belts. If you or someone you know has been injured in an auto accident, we are experts on Utah personal injury law. Call us at 1-(855)-245-6859 for a free consultation. Our dedicated lawyers can help fight for your unique cause and provide the information you need to get the money you deserve.

Image copy right to Automobile Italia

Ken Christensen
Partner, Founder at Christensen & Hymas
Ken Christensen is the founding partner of Christensen & Hymas. He is an avid cyclist, loves baseball, and enjoys spending time with his family in the outdoors.

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