Airbags in vehicles are put in place to protect us from injuries and reduce the risk of death when we’re involved in a car accident. Unfortunately, there are also situations where airbags cause injuries.
Since 2017, the NHTSA estimates that frontal airbags have saved more than 50,000 lives, in the case when airbags are used appropriately and function correctly.
There are airbags that don’t function the way they should, though. For example, the Takata airbag recall started in 2015, including more than 70 million vehicles. There were at least 15 deaths and 250 injuries associated with defective airbags with this recall.
The following are six facts and things to know about airbag safety and injuries.
1. How Do Airbags Work?
An airbag is a safety design that’s designed to protect vehicle passengers if there’s a crash. They’re thin fabric bags that unfold from different locations with a vehicle. They’re supplemental sources of protection meant to be used along with a seatbelt.
If you’re in an accident, an airbag will inflate when a sensor connected to it detects a collision. Nitrogen gas inflates airbags, and then they deflate as soon as passengers or drivers make contact. The airbag is like a cushion between the occupants of a vehicle and their car to mitigate sustained injuries.
It takes an airbag less than 1/20th of a second for inflation to occur, and they deploy at speeds of anywhere from 100-220 miles per hour.
One reason that an airbag can be a danger in and of itself is because of how quickly they deploy, especially if you aren’t wearing a seatbelt.
2. Airbag Locations
There are usually airbags in different parts of a vehicle, including frontal airbags that are in the steering wheel and the instrument panel for the driver and passenger in the front. Some vehicles have knee airbags that deploy from below the steering column, providing protection to the knees of the driver and passenger upfront.
There are often side airbags located in the doors of the vehicles for side-impact collision protection, and curtain airbags come down from the roof of vehicles for head protection.
Frontal airbags are required in all new passenger cars and vehicles since 1999. Side airbags aren’t mandated, but almost all manufacturers have included them as standard equipment.
3. Airbag Statistics
In frontal crashes, airbags are thought to reduce driver deaths by 29%. They are estimated to reduce front-passenger fatalities by 32%, for passengers who are 13 and older.
The NHTSA estimates the combination of an airbag and a lap and shoulder belt can reduce the risk of death in frontal crashes by 61%, compared to a 50% reduction for seatbelts alone and a 34% reduction for just airbags.
4. Airbag Injuries
The energy that’s needed to inflate the airbags in a vehicle can, on occasion, cause injury to people who are sitting too close to one or who are thrown too close to the airbag prior to it actually deploying. This was more of a risk with first-generation frontal airbags, which tended to deploy with more force.
From 1990 to 2008, the NHTSA estimates more than 290 deaths were caused by the inflation of frontal airbags in low-speed accidents.
Almost 90% of these deaths occurred in vehicles that were manufactured before 1998. Over 80% of people killed weren’t belted or were improperly restrained, and most of the deaths were passengers. Of those passengers, more than 90% were children and infants, who weren’t belted at all or who were in rear-facing child safety seats that put their heads too close to an airbag that was deploying.
Shorter drivers and elderly people, who are most likely to sit too close to the steering wheel, were also vulnerable to these injuries.
Now, because of changes in government regulations and requirements, serious injuries stemming from airbags that function properly are rare.
There were two phases of changes that led to reductions in these injuries and deaths.
At first, federal rules were changed to encourage car makers to reduce the energy in frontal airbags. That began with 1998 models.
Then, NHTSA issued a certified-advanced airbag requirement for more sophisticated airbags to be placed in all passenger vehicles by the model year 2007.
With advanced airbags, there’s a modification of patterns of deployment if the weight sensors detect that a driver is small or there’s a front seat passenger or child safety seat.
Side airbags can also deploy with so much energy they cause injury, but they deploy with less energy than a frontal airbag. There are some injuries recorded that came from side airbag inflation, but there’s no indication this is a common scenario. There also doesn’t seem to be an increased risk of injury in kids who are 15 and younger from the deployment of side airbags.
5. Faulty Airbags
With modern standards are requirements, airbag injury rates have gone down, and when they do happen, they’re most often due to faulty airbags.
The government will issue a recall when a vehicle has a faulty airbag system that could lead to an increased risk of injury in a crash.
Reasons for recalls include failures to deploy, incorrect deployment energy, incorrect timing, and defective parts. A recalled airbag needs to be replaced to make sure that occupants get enough protection if there’s a crash.
If you need more information about a recall affecting your vehicle, you can find it in the NHTSA recall database.
Again, the Takata airbag recall, which started in 2015, was the largest in U.S. history.
6. Airbag Safety Tips
There are things you can do to reduce the risk of an airbag injury.
- Your arms and legs shouldn’t rest against an airbag. The force of the deploying airbag and then the gases that are exhausted by it can cause injuries.
- Drivers and passengers in the vehicle’s front seat should be in the center of their seats, upright against their seatback and with their feet on the floor.
- Don’t use aftermarket dash or seat covers.
- Young children should always be in the rear seat, and if they have to sit in the front seat for any reason, the seat should be as far back as possible.
Finally, for women who are in the later stages of pregnancy, they should make sure their abdomen is at least 10 inches from the steering wheel, and their lap belts should be on their pelvic bone, ideally, high on their thighs.