Your Car’s Airbag System

Updated September 21, 2015

Before there were airbags, there were seat belts. Seat belts were the original form of passenger restraint in automobiles.  Seatbelts started to appear in cars in the 1950s and have saved thousands of lives.  However, in the endless pursuit of better “safety technology”, automobile manufacturers developed airbags in the early 1980s.  When combined with seatbelts, airbags are remarkably effective safety devices.


The goal of an airbag is simply to slow the passenger’s forward motion during a collision as evenly as possible.  The whole process starts with signal from a motion sensor.  When one of these sensors detects a large collision-magnitude force, it sends an electrical pulse to the automobile’s airbag inflation system.  Typically this ignites a charge that produces a hot blast of nitrogen gas which drives the airbag out from its storage site in the car at more than 200mph. The inflated airbag, along with seatbelts, prevents passengers from moving very far forward. A second or so after inflation, the gas quickly dissipates through tiny holes in the bag. Even though the whole inflation process happens in only one-twenty-fifth of a second, serious injury is usually avoided.

Since the early days of automobile airbags, experts have cautioned that airbags are absolutely to be used in tandem with seat belts. Seat belts were originally necessary because airbags originally worked only in front-end collisions occurring at more than 10 mph. Only seat belts could help in side swipes and crashes (although side-mounted airbags are becoming common now), rear-end collisions and secondary impacts. However, today, automotive engineers design the two so they work together.

It didn’t take long to learn that the force of an airbag can hurt those who are too close to it, particularly children. Researchers have determined that the risk zone for driver airbags is the first 2 to 3 inches of inflation. So, placing yourself 10 inches from your driver airbag gives you a clear margin of safety. The rules are very different for small children. An airbag can seriously injure or even kill an unbuckled child who is sitting too close. Experts agree that children 12 and under should ride buckled up in a properly installed, age-appropriate car seat in the rear seat of a car.  They should not come in direct contact with any airbag device for safety reasons.

In certain special cases, car owners can request the ability to deactivate their airbags. Generally speaking, you can’t deactivate your airbag without installing a retrofit on-off switch. Go online and look for the NHTSA brochure, “Airbags and On-Off Switches: Information for an Informed Decision,” and the accompanying form, Request for airbag On-Off Switch.  This information will allow you to decide whether disabling your cars airbag system will make your car safer under the conditions that you typically drive in.  If you decide to go forward with an airbag on-off switch, most dealerships can help you with the installation.

Source: Urse Honda



Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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