• News
  • All About Airbags: Saving Lives, One Accident at a Time

All About Airbags: Saving Lives, One Accident at a Time

All About Airbags: Saving Lives, One Accident at a Time

Motor vehicle safety has come a long way over the years. Features like shatter-resistant glass, antilock brakes, and even seat belts are durable components designed to protect you and your passengers. Day in and day out, they work flawlessly to keep you safe – just as intended. On the other hand, some vital safety innovations, such as unibody construction that employs “crumple zones” to absorb crash energy, and advanced automotive airbags that instantly expand upon impact are – to put it simply – designed to be destroyed.

The self-destructive nature of airbags is critically important to your safety while driving. In a crash where airbags are deployed, sensors linked to your car’s “black box” trigger a small explosion that generates a large volume of gas. This effectively creates a balloon that’s engineered to absorb the devastating shock of energy released by the impact — energy that would otherwise be transferred to your body if you were to directly hit the dashboard. After that occurs the airbag is permanently depleted and can’t be reused (as we’ll explain below).

Since they were invented, front-seat airbags have been credited with saving more than 50,000 lives. And that number doesn’t even consider side curtain airbags and other specialized variants designed to protect a car’s occupants in T-bone and rear-end collisions. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, engineers have even developed inflatable seatbelts that use airbag-like technology to further cushion a vehicle’s rear seat occupants in an accident.

With all that in mind, let’s take a few moments to talk about the history, features and benefits of your vehicle’s Supplemental Restraint System (often abbreviated SRS) airbags – along with some potential shortfalls that sometimes result in unintended airbag-related injuries.

When and Why Were Airbags Developed?

Since 1968, mandatory seat belts have saved lives by preventing accident victims to be ejected from their vehicles in serious collisions. Airbags were the next important step in the automotive safety enhancement process since they intended to not only save lives but also minimize the chances of accident-related injuries. There’s some debate about the origin of airbags. Some sources note that the first American production car featuring airbags was GM’s revolutionary front-wheel-drive Oldsmobile Toronado circa 1973. Not to be outdone, Ford Motor Company included airbags in Mercury Monterey models around the same time – perhaps even earlier than GM. Following these early successes, front-seat airbags became legally required in passenger cars in 1998 – 30 years after seat belts were made standard equipment. Vans, SUVs and trucks saw the addition of an airbag requirement the very next year.

How Do Airbags Work?

Very quickly! When sensors in your vehicle identify a crash impact, they can trigger airbag deployment in as little as a twentieth of a second – that’s about twice as fast as the blink of an eye! In that mere fraction of a second, a chemical reaction in the airbag causes the release of an enormous amount of gas that instantaneously inflates the airbag, effectively forming a balloon of air between you and your car’s dashboard and windshield to cushion you from hard impacts and shards of flying glass. Following the crash, the gas is slowly released by special holes woven into the airbag fabric that result in a gradual deflation.

What Types of Airbags Are Available?

Airbags intended for frontal impacts are the most common, and were developed first. Subsequently, airbags designed to protect a vehicle’s occupants from side and rear impacts have been manufactured. These are sometimes referred to as “curtain” airbags since they surround passengers on multiple sides. There are even special airbags intended to protect your knees during a collision, though there is some debate as to their efficacy.

Can an Airbag Cause Injuries?

Yes, people have been hurt by airbags. With any airbag deployment, chemical burns can occurarm and wrist injuries are not uncommon, and some people have even had facial bones broken by striking an inflated airbag. However, those injuries are considered far less severe than what may have happened if the airbags were not deployed. In other words, minor first-degree burns are probably a small price to pay for the increased safety offered – not to mention lives saved – by the passage of mandatory, modern airbag laws.

Can One Avoid Being Injured by an Airbag?

Possibly. Instead of driving with your hands placed at the traditional “10 and 2” position on the steering wheel, some experts suggest holding the wheel at 9 and 3, in the middle to lower quadrant. The idea is that, by holding the wheel where the vehicle’s driver-side airbag isn’t usually placed, one could reduce the risk of hand, arm, and wrist injuries. It’s also possible a long-sleeved shirt or gloves could help prevent burns – which is why professional mechanics are advised to wear such protective gear (including safety glasses and hearing protection) when replacing airbag system repairs or replacements.

Have There Been any Airbag Recalls?

Indeed, there have. The most famous airbag-related recall is probably the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Takata program, which was initiated after airbags made by this manufacturer were shown to explode after years of exposure to heat and humidity in certain environmental conditions. This recall involved millions of vehicles, many of which have never yet been corrected. To see if your car has been included in this (or any other) recall, check the NHTSA’s recall page. You’ll need your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to conduct the search. If you determine your car has been recalled for any reason, take immediate steps to have safety issues rectified. As always, better safe than sorry.

Can I Disarm My Vehicle’s Airbags?

Usually not. Doing so will seriously compromise your safety – not to mention that of any passengers. In certain situations, however, you are legally permitted to install an airbag ON/OFF switch when the additional safety provided by an airbag is outweighed by specific driving circumstances. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will allow a vehicle dealer to install an aftermarket ON/OFF airbag switch only when one or more of the following criteria are met:

  1. A rear-facing infant restraint must be placed in the front seat of a vehicle because there is no rear seat, or the rear seat is too small for the child restraint. (For the passenger airbag only.)
  2. A child under 13 years of age must ride in the front seat because the child has a condition that requires frequent medical monitoring in the front seat. (For the passenger airbag only.)
  3. An individual with a medical condition is safer if the frontal airbag is turned off. A written statement from a physician must accompany each request based on a medical condition unless the request is based on a medical condition for which the National Conference on Medical Indications for Air Bag Deactivation recommends deactivation. (For driver and/or passenger frontal airbags as appropriate.)
  4. A driver must sit within a few inches of the air bag, typically because they are of extremely small stature (i.e., 4 feet 6 inches or less). (For the driver frontal airbag only.)

What Happens Once an Airbag Has Been Deployed?

As we mentioned earlier, it’s a one-and-done event. That’s because airbags – which contain chemicals that physically explode upon impact – can’t be repaired once they’ve been activated. They must be completely replaced — and that process isn’t cheap. Each airbag can cost as much as $5,000 to reinstall when parts and labor charges are considered. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a vehicle to be totaled following a crash where airbags have been deployed, at least in part due to the high cost of replacing the used airbags.

Can I Sue for an Airbag-Related Injury?

Certainly! Some people have filed suit against manufacturers when airbags deployed (or deployed with excessive force), while others have sued airbag makers when their products have failed to deploy at all in a collision. This type of product liability or class action lawsuit happens when people are injured due to the improper operation of an item, a product defect, or a result of its unintended failure. Since minor burns caused by airbags are far less severe than injuries that might have otherwise occurred in a collision, there is little likelihood that a lawsuit filed for a minor airbag-related burn would be successful.

However, there have been incidents where, for example, an airbag deployed unexpectedly when a car hit a bump in the road, resulting in passenger injuries. In such a case, a lawsuit might be warranted. And, of course, the Takata airbag scandal and subsequent legal actions made front-page news across the country. Every case is different, so if you’ve been hurt by an airbag-related incident, our advice is to get in touch with us as soon as possible to discuss the particulars of your situation.

What Else Should I Know About Airbags?

Over the years, engineers and automakers have worked to perfect automotive airbags, first introducing “depowered” varieties in the late-1990s intended to reduce or minimize injuries while still protecting passengers. More recently, the designing of “dual-stage” airbags can vary their level of protection depending upon the force of impact detected in a crash. These advanced designs have been included in most front-impact airbags since the mid 2000s.

Airbags can also come into play during a personal injury case since an airbag deployment clearly indicates a significant level of impact during a collision. However, nothing is ever perfect. So, there’s still the chance that an airbag won’t work as intended or other unpredictable issues related to their operation will occur. If that ever happens to you or someone you love, we’re always ready to be of assistance. Call us anytime at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946). We definitely won’t leave you holding the bag.

All About Airbags: Saving Lives, One Accident at a Time

Content checked by Mike Morse, personal injury attorney with Mike Morse Injury Law Firm. Mike Morse is the founder of Mike Morse Law Firm, the largest personal injury law firm in Michigan. Since being founded in 1995, Mike Morse Law Firm has grown to 150 employees, served 25,000 clients, and collected more than $1 billion for victims of auto, truck and motorcycle accidents. The main office is in Southfield, MI but you can also find us in Detroit, Sterling Heights and many other locations.