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9 min read

Are Airbags Dangerous? Unpacking the Pros and Cons of Driver Safety

Airbags: a double-edged sword in vehicle safety. They can be the difference between life and death in an accident, yet they can also cause injuries, sometimes serious. 

Airbags have saved over 50,000 lives since their introduction, yet, they also carry risks. These range from minor abrasions to severe injuries. Let's unpack the facts about this essential automotive safety feature.

This article looks into the complex world of airbags, exploring their benefits and risks, and offering insights on how to coexist safely with them.


Key Takeaways

  • Airbags are designed to protect occupants in various types of collisions, with assorted deployment mechanisms designed for different scenarios, such as frontal, side, knee, and curtain airbag, as well as innovations like far-side and panoramic sunroof airbags.
  • While airbags significantly reduce fatalities and a range of injuries during car accidents, they can also cause potential dangers, including neck injuries, lacerations, chemical burns, and more severe injuries if there is a malfunction or improper use.
  • The proper use of airbags to prevent related injuries includes maintaining a correct seating position, regular use of seat belts, and keeping updated with vehicle maintenance and airbag system check-ups.


Understanding Airbag Functionality

At their core, airbags are engineered to protect vehicle occupants during collisions. They come in various types, each with a unique deployment mechanism to maximize safety. Whether it’s a motorcycle airbag developed by Honda to protect the rider during severe frontal collisions, or a seat cushion airbag intended to reduce forces exerted on an occupant’s chest and abdomen, airbags are designed to protect each passenger in a specific way.

In fact, even seat belts are designed to improve safety in conjunction with airbags. Devices like inflatable seat belts distribute crash forces more effectively across the torso and chest, proving beneficial for both adults and children in the rear seat.

The deployment of an airbag, however, depends on various factors:

  • the collision specifics
  • the airbag system strategy
  • the location and sensitivity of the crash sensors

We’ll examine more closely the various types of airbags and their deployment mechanisms.

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Types of Airbags

Airbags fall into various categories, each with a unique deployment mechanism. These categories include:

  • Frontal airbags: designed to protect the head and chest during head-on collisions
  • Side airbags: engineered to deploy in the event of a side car crash, minimizing the risk of individuals’ heads and chests coming into contact with the vehicle’s side structure or an external object like a tree or pole
  • Knee airbags: designed to protect the knees and lower legs during a collision
  • Curtain airbags: deploy from the roof of the vehicle and provide protection for the heads of occupants in the front and rear seats

These different types of airbags work together to provide maximum protection in the event of a car crash.

Innovations in airbag technology have also led to the creation of far-side airbags and panoramic sunroof airbags. A far-side airbag prevents front passengers from colliding with each other during side-impact crashes. Meanwhile, a panoramic sunroof airbag prevents occupants, including those in a child safety seat, from being ejected through the sunroof during rollovers. As panoramic sunroofs become more popular, the relevance of these airbags is expected to grow.


Deployment Mechanism

Airbags, including the passenger airbag, employ a mechanism activated by crash sensors, quickly inflating to protect occupants from the impact. The sensor detects a significant frontal impact, triggering an electric signal that initiates the deployment process. These airbags inflate within milliseconds, with side airbags taking approximately 10 milliseconds to inflate.

The deployment mechanisms use a range of crash sensors. These sensors, whether impact sensors, electromechanical sensors, or MEMS-based chips, are vital in air bag deployment. The proper functioning of these sensors is key to maximizing the safety of the vehicle’s occupants.

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The Benefits of Airbags

Airbags have been proven to save lives. Since their introduction, they have preserved thousands of lives in car accidents. They are capable of preventing a variety of injuries, including:

  • Bruises
  • Broken bones
  • Head injuries
  • Lacerations
  • Chemical burns

Airbags, such as side airbags, significantly lessen the chance of injury during side-impact collisions by protecting critical body areas.

While the benefits of airbags are numerous, their advantages can be further categorized based on their type. Frontal airbags and side airbags, for instance, offer unique benefits that significantly improve occupant safety during vehicle crashes.


Frontal Airbag Advantages

Frontal airbags play a key role in improving vehicle safety. They decrease driver fatalities in frontal crashes by 29%, a statistic that speaks volumes about their importance in road safety. These airbags are activated from the dashboard during moderate to severe frontal collisions. They serve to protect the head and chest of the vehicle occupants, substantially diminishing the likelihood of fatal injuries.

These airbags, therefore, offer a first line of defense in head-on collisions. By cushioning the impact and protecting the head and chest, frontal airbags contribute to reducing fatalities and injuries during car accidents.


Side Airbag Benefits

Side airbags offer substantial protection during side-impact collisions. They:

  • Decrease the likelihood of fatality in such collisions by as much as 52%
  • Increase safety during crashes
  • Result in a 31% reduction in the risk of death in nearside crashes when curtain and torso airbags are present.

Moreover, head-protecting side airbags have been demonstrated to be essential in side crash tests. They provide cushioning for the head and prevent contact with hazardous structures. Thus, side airbags play are important for occupant safety during side-impact crashes.

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Potential Dangers of Airbags

While airbags are critical safety features, they can pose potential dangers if they malfunction or cause injuries during deployment. A malfunctioning airbag can lead to additional injuries in a car accident, including:

  • neck injury
  • soft tissue injury
  • lacerations and abrasions
  • eye injuries
  • potentially traumatic brain injuries

Even correctly functioning airbags can cause injuries such as burns, abrasions, and in some cases, fatalities, especially for occupants positioned in close proximity to the airbag.

The timing of airbag deployment is of utmost importance. Any delay, even a fraction of a second, can lead to serious injuries, particularly when the occupant’s head is in close proximity to the inflating airbag. What steps can be taken to lessen these risks and prevent injuries related to airbag deployment?


Malfunctioning Airbags

Airbag malfunctions can be attributed to a variety of factors, including defective airbag sensors, manufacturing defects, and electrical issues. These issues can result in untimely or failed deployment. When an airbag fails to deploy correctly, it can cause additional injuries to the vehicle’s occupants.

Airbags have a failure rate of approximately 0.51 percent, meaning approximately 1 in every 97 cars experiences an airbag malfunction. This statistic highlights the importance of regular vehicle maintenance and check-ups to make sure the proper functioning of airbags and minimize the risk of malfunctions.


Injuries Caused by Airbag Deployment

Injuries resulting from airbag deployment, also known as airbag injuries, can be severe and varied. They can include:

  • Burns
  • Abrasions
  • Fractures
  • Facial injuries such as bruising
  • Chest injuries, including heart injuries
  • Internal injuries
  • Fatalities, especially for occupants positioned in close proximity to the airbag.

The seating position of front seat passengers can significantly impact the injuries resulting from airbag deployment. Occupants who are seated too close to the airbag or are improperly positioned are at a higher risk of sustaining severe injuries during deployment. Hence, maintaining the proper seating position and using seat belts are key in preventing such injuries.


Preventing Airbag-Related Injuries

A few key steps can prevent injuries related to airbag deployment. Here are some important tips to follow:

  1. Maintain a secure seating position. Keep a distance of at least 10 inches between the driver and the steering wheel to reduce the risk of airbag-related injury.
  2. Use seat belts. Seat belts play a vital role in keeping occupants in the correct position and managing forces on the body.
  3. Understand the role of airbags. Airbags aid in dispersing the crash impact across a wider area.

By following these steps, you can reduce the risk of injuries related to airbag deployment.

How can you guarantee the correct seating position? Furthermore, what part do seat belts play in preventing injuries related to airbag deployment? We shall analyze these aspects in more detail.

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Proper Seating Position

The seating position is vitally important for airbag safety. A proper seating position involves maintaining an upright posture while driving and keeping a distance of at least 10 inches from the steering wheel. This distance allows the airbag to deploy effectively and at a safer distance from the driver, thus reducing the risk of injury.

Common errors individuals tend to make concerning their seating position include sitting too close to the airbag, not wearing seat belts, and not sitting upright with feet on the floor. By steering clear of these errors, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of injuries related to airbag deployment.


Seat Belt Usage

Seat belts are extremely important, and more so with the effectiveness of airbags. They restrict and control the movement of the occupant’s body mass, allowing the airbags to deploy effectively and minimize spinal injuries and other harm.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the use of airbags alone resulted in a 13% decrease in fatalities. However, when combined with a three-point seat belt, the use of airbags can reduce mortality by 50%.

Not wearing a seat belt in a vehicle equipped with an active airbag system can lead to extremely severe injuries in the event of a collision, such as cervical injuries and the potential for being propelled through the windshield. Hence, regular use of seat belts is paramount in preventing injuries related to airbag deployment.


Innovations in Airbag Technology

The world of airbags is not static. Technological advancements have led to significant innovations in airbag design and functionality. Recent advancements include the development of smart airbags that can adjust their deployment to reduce the risk of injury to passengers. Another innovation is the introduction of external airbags, designed to reduce the impact on vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians.

These advancements are transforming the field of vehicle safety. We shall examine these innovations in more detail and understand their contribution to enhancing passenger safety.


Smart Airbags

Smart airbags are engineered to:

  • Recognize the weight and height of passengers
  • Modify their deployment to reduce injury risk
  • Use technologies such as ultrasonic sensors to determine passenger weight and height
  • Modify the airbag’s inflation according to crash severity, occupant size and position, seatbelt usage, and vehicle velocity.

The adaptability of smart airbags lessens the risk of injury to occupants in different crash scenarios. By detecting the size, position, and presence of the front-seat passenger, including recognizing the presence of a child, smart airbags offer customized protection that goes above and beyond what regular airbags can provide.


External Airbags

External airbags represent another innovation augmenting vehicle safety. These airbags are equipped with sensors that detect side impacts. Upon detection of a side impact, the airbag deploys from the side sill of the vehicle to absorb the crash energy and offer additional protection to the occupants. Companies like ZF Friedrichshafen AG are developing these airbags to improve safety.

One notable type of external airbag is the pedestrian hood airbag developed by Volvo. This airbag deploys from under the hood to cover the windshield and A-pillar, protecting pedestrians in the event of a collision. This innovation underscores the potential of airbag technology to not only protect vehicle occupants but also those outside the vehicle.

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Legal Considerations and Liability

Comprehending the legal aspects regarding airbag malfunctions and injuries is vital. When airbag malfunctions lead to injuries, legal considerations and accountability come into play. Product liability refers to the legal accountability of manufacturers for injuries resulting from their products, such as airbag malfunctions. In the event of an airbag malfunction, it is imperative to retain evidence pertaining to the airbag, crash sensor, and the vehicle’s computer.

It's also recommended to contact specialized lawyers who are proficient in product liability claims, like Muller Brazil, as we have the expertise to guide you through the complexities of such cases and can provide valuable guidance.

Substantiating a product liability claim can be intricate. We shall examine the subtleties of product liability claims and the method of evidence collection in the event of an airbag malfunction.


Product Liability Claims

In the context of automobiles, a product liability claim refers to a legal claim filed by a person who has suffered injury or loss due to a defective or dangerous product within a vehicle. In order to file a claim for an airbag injury, it is necessary to provide evidence demonstrating defects or unreasonable risks in the airbag or its design.

The main defects that lead to airbag-related product liability claims include:

  • Design flaws
  • Defective webbing
  • Faulty inflator
  • Non-deployment
  • Late or overly-aggressive deployment
  • Sensor malfunction
  • Failure to warn

The presence of a rupturing air bag inflator is considered to pose an unreasonable risk of causing serious injury or death to vehicle occupants.


Gathering Evidence

In order to initiate the gathering of evidence for airbag malfunction claims, it is advisable to:

  1. Promptly seek medical attention
  2. Inform the police to report the accident
  3. Speak with a specialized lawyer
  4. Under their guidance, investigate the cause of the airbag failure
  5. Gather all necessary information and documentation to establish liability and detail the damages sustained
  6. Make sure of the preservation of airbags and vehicle components following an accident

A professional inspection significantly contributes to validating airbag malfunction claims through:

  • A thorough visual examination of the vehicle
  • Assessment of any signs of damage to the airbags or associated sensors, which might suggest a malfunction
  • Photographic documentation that depicts the condition of the airbag after deployment

This evidence can serve as strong evidence in airbag malfunction cases.

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In conclusion, while airbags serve as crucial safety features in vehicles, it’s important to understand their functioning, benefits, potential dangers, and innovations. By maintaining a proper seating position, using seat belts correctly, and being aware of the latest advancements in airbag technology, we can make the most of airbags in maximizing our safety on the road. Knowledge is power, and being informed about these safety devices can potentially save lives.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are airbags 100% safe?

Airbags are essential safety features in modern vehicles, but they can also cause injuries, and in some cases, these injuries can be fatal.

What happens when an airbag hits you?

When an airbag hits you, it can cause serious injuries such as facial fractures and chest injuries due to the impact force. Additionally, burns can occur on the chest, hands, arms, or face from the airbag's fabric moving along the skin.

How much safer is a car with airbags?

A car with air bags is significantly safer, reducing the risk of death in frontal crashes by 61 percent when combined with seat belts compared to a 50 percent reduction for seat belts alone. So, airbags are an important safety feature for protecting occupants.

Can an airbag knock you out?

Yes, an airbag can cause injuries such as concussions, brain swelling, and bruising, which can lead to loss of consciousness. Eye injuries are also a risk due to the impact of the inflating airbag.

What is the purpose of airbags in vehicles?

The purpose of airbags in vehicles is to safeguard vehicle occupants in the event of collisions by deploying in an impact.

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Meet the Author

Paul Brazil - Founding Partner

Paul Brazil is a native of Dunmore, Pennsylvania and a graduate of Dunmore High School. For his undergraduate education, he attended Bloomsburg University where he majored in political science. He then went on to earn his JD from Widener University School of Law. Following graduation from law school, Mr. Brazil worked at a large Philadelphia civil defense firm where he litigated workers’ compensation claims and Heart and Lung Act cases.

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