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Airbags: More Than Just a Safety Feature

BY: Chris Brown
Car crash test dummy sitting in car with airbags

Driving a car can be liberating, but it does have its dangers. To ensure you’re protected out on the road, modern vehicles come with a number of important safety features that can be lifesaving in an incident. The airbag is one such innovation, and studies have shown that having one in your car can help reduce your risk of death by at least 30%.

As time goes by, however, advancements in airbag technology are making them more than just a car safety feature. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the science behind airbags, how they’ve changed since their introduction, and what the future might hold. Keep reading for everything you need to know.

The Science Behind Airbags

You may not believe it, but airbags have only been around for a few decades. Invented in 1968 by a man named Allen Breed, they were tweaked and perfected several times before General Motors first introduced them to government vehicles in 1973. After successful trials, Oldsmobiles and Buicks with airbags were sold to the public two years later. Today, they’re a standard feature in every car on the market.

Vehicles can be equipped with front (steering wheel), knee, side, center, curtain, and seatbelt airbags. A moderate to severe crash sends a signal from the airbag system’s electronic control unit to an inflator within the airbag module. This triggers an ignitor in the inflator to start a chemical reaction that produces a harmless gas that inflates the airbag in less than 1/20th of a second.

Because they inflate at such speed, serious injuries can occur if the driver or passenger is too close to the airbag as it begins to deploy. However, vehicle design features ensure optimal seating distance, and front airbags have saved more than 50,000 lives over the last 30 years.

Advancements in Airbag Technology

Just like seatbelts, airbags are being constantly developed to improve their effectiveness. Many innovations have already been introduced, for example:

Roof Airbags

The Citroen C4 Cactus is one of the first vehicles on the market to feature roof-mounted passenger airbag technology. This replaces the passenger airbag typically mounted in the instrument panel and attaches to the roof just above the windscreen. Instead of firing toward the passenger, it unfolds along the windscreen instead.

Inflatable Seat Belts

In 2011, Ford rolled out the very first inflatable seat belt designed to reduce rear-seat injuries. If a crash occurs, the shoulder belt inflates, distributing forces evenly across the torso and chest. These innovative airbags are available as optional extras for the outboard second-row seating positions of several Ford and Lincoln vehicles. They also come as standard in Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles.

Panoramic Sunroof Airbag

Hyundai Mobis introduced the first panoramic roof curtain airbag in 2017. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics show that at least 260 people were ejected via the sunroof in crashes between the years 2000 and 2015, with the problem only expected to grow as panoramic sunroofs become more popular. These airbags should stop that.

Dual Stage Airbags

Required in all US vehicles since 2005, high-tech dual stage airbags can deploy at two speeds or not at all, depending on information sent from sensors in the seatbelts and front seats. In less extreme collisions, the airbags deploy at the lower first stage (around 70% of their full force). In more severe circumstances, both stages are deployed.

Passenger Sensing Systems

Often paired with dual stage airbags, these advanced systems use sensors in the seat to collect and interpret information. By detecting weight and pressure, the system can determine whether the passenger is a child or a small adult who might be at greater risk of injury from a deployed airbag. If so, it will respond by deploying at a lower intensity or not deploying an airbag at all.

Beyond Safety: The Expanded Role of Airbags

These advancements in airbags have made them much more than just a safety feature. They now influence a number of things, including the aesthetics and structure of vehicles. For example, the development of the roof airbag has saved automakers a significant amount of space. This has allowed for improved design and ergonomics because the instrument panel no longer needs to be designed around the conventional passenger airbag.

The Impact of Airbags on Vehicle Safety Rating

To determine a car’s vehicle safety rating, the NHTSA conducts a series of tests evaluating its performance in a crash. This includes frontal, side, and rollover tests because these types account for the vast majority of crashes on American roads.

For example, the frontal crash test scenario simulates an oncoming vehicle crashing headfirst into the one being tested, with two adult-sized dummies secured with a seatbelt in the driver and passenger seats. Once the simulation is complete, the dummies are evaluated for head, neck, chest, and femur injuries.

Airbags will, of course, significantly impact the outcome of these tests, as they should (in theory) reduce the injuries sustained by the passengers. More airbags don’t always mean a better score, however. Fewer, better-designed airbags in a collision-resistant car body often perform much better than multiple airbags in a lower-quality vehicle.

The Future of Airbags: Upcoming Innovations

The innovation never stops, and safety companies across the globe are hard at work on the future of airbag technology, including:

Back Seat Airbags

Traditionally, airbags have only been in the front of vehicles, but TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. has unveiled two airbags that could protect rear-seat passengers during a frontal collision. One of the airbags is mounted in the roof, and the other in the back of the front seat, with both expected to debut in Europe before they make their way over to the U.S.

Flexible Seating Airbag Systems

Future vehicles with flexible seating options (e.g., recliner seats and campfire configurations) will call for new airbag systems. As a result, airbag suppliers are looking into seat-mounted airbags that envelop passengers in a protective cocoon.

External Airbags

Anywhere from 37-40% of car accidents are side crashes, so safety specialists are developing external airbags that pop out on the outside of cars (as opposed to interior side airbags) within 30 milliseconds. The side impact airbags deploy from the sill beneath the doors and could be available before the end of the decade.

Bicycle Helmet Airbags

Hovding, a company in Sweden, has designed an airbag for cyclists that’s meant to be used instead of a traditional helmet. Triggered by the cyclist’s abnormal movement indicating a crash, it deploys in one-tenth of a second from a collar worn around the neck, covering the wearer’s head like a helmet would.

Caring for Your Airbag System

There’s no real way to care for your airbags, as they should last as long as the vehicle they were fitted in. You’ll only need to have your airbags looked at if they deploy for whatever reason or if the airbag warning light illuminates on your dashboard. If this happens, you should have your car looked at by a certified mechanic as soon as possible — only they will have the necessary qualifications to ensure everything works properly.

Vehicle Airbag FAQs

If you still have some airbag questions, you should find the answers right here:

Why is an airbag more effective than only a seatbelt?

Seatbelts are great at preventing injury during a car crash, but the results are even better combined with an airbag. Airbags help to dissipate the crash impact over a greater surface area, preventing the driver and passenger from colliding with the steering column, windshield, and dashboard.

Are airbags more helpful or harmful?

Frontal airbags have saved somewhere in the region of 50,000 lives over the last 30 years. While the high-temperature gasses inside can sometimes burn passengers upon airbag deployment, these can be treated relatively easily and are certainly preferable to the severe (and potentially fatal) injuries caused by a crash.

Which safety feature is most likely to prevent a crash?

Airbags sure are useful, but the most important thing you can do to protect your safety in a vehicle is buckle your seatbelt. Statistics show that seat belts have saved 374,276 lives since 1975.

Is it better to have more airbags?

Airbag counting isn’t the most useful way to gauge safety. Fewer, better-designed airbags in a well-engineered vehicle are much more effective than multiple airbags in a car body that isn’t designed to offer much protection. Sometimes, less can be just as good (if not better) than more.

How do airbags work?

During a collision, an electronic signal is transmitted from the control unit of the airbag system to an inflator within the airbag module. This activates an ignitor within the inflator, beginning a chemical process that generates a non-harmful gas and inflates the airbag in a fraction of a second.

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If you’d like to read more about all things automobile, we have tons of other helpful articles, just like this, on our extended warranty blog.

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