By Chris Brewer
Last Updated 12/08/2015
Air bags first appeared in the 1980s and became a requirement for all new automobiles built since the 1998 model year. They enhance the safety of the occupants of a motor vehicle during a crash. Working along with the vehicle’s seat belts, air bags slow the forward momentum of the driver and passengers during the abrupt change in speed that happens during a collision.
Every grade school kid is taught that an object in motion stays in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force. When you are traveling in a car at 35 mph and crash into a solid barrier, the force from the wall will decelerate the vehicle to 0 mph in a split second, causing great damage to the structure of the vehicle and potentially to anyone or anything inside the cabin. Air bags combine with the vehicle’s seatbelts to slow the occupant’s speed of deceleration, working to avoid the catastrophic and potentially life-threatening injuries that can occur from slamming into the vehicle’s dashboard, windshield, windows or doors at high speeds.
The technology involved in air bag safety is quite impressive. In essence, sensors in the vehicle detect a collision over certain speeds, then an explosion produces a strong blast of nitrogen gas that inflates a strategically placed nylon bag. The air bag’s deployment requires less time than it takes for the impact to travel through the vehicle’s body and reach the occupants, providing a soft (relative to the vehicle’s metal, glass and plastic) buffer from the force of the crash.
Initially air bags were only installed in the front dashboard area of the vehicle, the driver’s side air bag is found in the steering wheel and the passenger’s air bag emerges from the dashboard. Encouraged by the life-saving effects of properly designed front air bags, many manufacturers have expanded the technology to include side air bags that deploy from the vehicle’s seat back or door during a side-impact collision. Curtain air bags that drop from the vehicle’s ceiling protect occupants’ heads. A front center air bag inflates between the front seats to protect occupants from a collision on the opposite side of the car.
Knee air bags deploy under car’s dashboard, saving the driver and front seat passenger’s kneecaps from hard impact in a high-speed frontal crash. Inflatable seat belts expand the surface area of the traditional seat belt during an impact, spreading out the pressure per square inch that is typically exerted on the occupant during a crash and limiting bruising and internal injury.
While the use of these additional air bags varies depending on manufacturer and vehicle, the injury-reducing and life-saving power of the supplemental restraint system is generally accepted by the vast majority of the automotive industry. The technology is vital to safety and continues to evolve, saving more lives in the process.
Of course, any explosion within inches of a person brings an inherent chance of injury. The force with which an air bag deploys can cause serious injury if precautions are not followed. The primary risk of injury is when the air bag deploys within 2 to 3 inches of the occupant. The blunt force can cause severe bruising, break bones, dislocate joints or even result in internal injuries.
To make sure that the driver’s seat is in a safe position, grab a ruler or tape measure and adjust the seat to a comfortable driving positing and measure. Once you are in place, sit as you would while driving and measure the distance from the center of the steering wheel to your breastbone. The goal is to sit at least 10 inches away from the air bag. If you need to make adjustments, simply leaning the seat back an inch or two may make all the difference. Adjusting the seat to a position that’s too far from the wheel may hinder your vision or ergonomics, but many new vehicles will allow you to raise the seat to compensate for the change. If not equipped, a firm cushion that won’t slide around can be used to find a comfortable position away from the air bag’s danger zone while not hindering your line of sight.
If your vehicle has a tilt steering wheel, take a second to ensure that the wheel is pointing toward your chest and not your head or neck. If you are used to the wheel sitting at a raked angle, you will need to work to break the habit, since the wheel should be closer to parallel with your abdomen.
The same basic rules apply to adults in the passenger seat. Sit up fairly straight and avoid being closer than 10 inches to the dashboard and you’ll be all set. Of course for children, front seat air bag safety is a different matter altogether. The hard and simple rule is this, children 12 years old and under should ride in the back seat in a properly installed car seat that is appropriate for their age and size. Air bags can and have killed children sitting in the front seat. Avoid the possibility of having a life-saving device cause injury, and abide by the back-seat-only principle for children under 12 at all times.
If you own a vehicle without a rear seat or all the rear seats are also taken by children under the age of 12, then the child must be in a front-facing child safety seat or a booster seat (depending on their age and size) and wearing a lap and shoulder belt. Slide the front seat toward the rear of the vehicle as far as possible.
Fortunately, many newer vehicles have sensors in the passenger seat that detect a lightweight occupant and automatically disengage or alter the deployment intensity of the air bag. These systems are referred to as “advanced frontal air bags” and are a requirement of all passenger cars, pickups, SUVs and vans produced after September 1, 2006.
The significance of a vehicle’s air bags is beyond measure when it comes to preventing injury and saving lives, but that’s not the only value of these mechanical wonders. Vehicle air bags are expensive, often costing thousands of dollars to replace once they have been deployed in an accident. Insurance companies understand the value of air bags and the high costs associated with replacing them properly, paying large amounts of money to guarantee that the work is done correctly with the right parts. Unfortunately, unscrupulous repair shops and dealers will pocket the money and substitute generic parts or simply leave the air bags unrepaired.
It doesn’t take much to conclude that air bag fraud has put a number of people at risk. But how do we, as consumers, protect ourselves from being victims? While there is no 100 percent guarantee you won’t be scammed, following this guide can help you eliminate the possibility of falling victim to air bag fraud.
First, if you are buying a used car shop at reputable dealer. A respectable business will want no part in quick scams that have the potential to cost lives. Ask around for recommendations and search online for complaints and compliments before spending a dime at a dealership that you aren’t familiar with.
The same basic principle applies to having your vehicle repaired after an accident. Search for a repair shop that is well respected and praised by people or organizations that you trust. Online searches go a long way. If you have an uneasy feeling about a repair shop you should move along. There are likely numerous choices in your area that would love to earn your business. Work with your insurance company for recommendations, too. Your insurance provider usually pays for the work and has almost as much invested as you do.
Second, if you are buying a used vehicle obtain a CARFAX Vehicle History Report. Check the report to see if the vehicle was involved in an accident or issued a salvage title. If the report reveals that the vehicle was in an accident, you will want to have the vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic to see if the air bag system was properly repaired or replaced. Even if the report is clean, taking any used car purchase to a trusted mechanic can help alleviate the worry of purchasing a defective vehicle. Simply ask the mechanic to inspect the vehicle’s air bag system and check for evidence of a previous accident.
If you choose to skip the mechanic and do the vehicle inspection yourself, add a visual inspection of the air bag system to the check list. When you turn on the vehicle an air bag indicator light will temporarily appear and then go out. If the light stays on or flashes, the odds are good that there is a serious problem with the vehicle’s air bag system. Be leery of excuses made by individuals, dealers or mechanics as to why the light doesn’t go on, stays on or flashes. While there is a tiny chance that it may be a bad sensor, the odds are that you discovered a car that is unsafe to drive because the system is broken or missing parts.
While air bags are hidden below the surface of the vehicle’s interior, there may be evidence that they have deployed or been opened in the past. Look at the steering wheel and dashboard for evidence that they might have deployed. Scratches, burn marks and discoloration of the covers or surrounding surfaces may share a little evidence that the car’s air bag system was previously repaired or replaced. In a worst-case scenario, the air bag system could still be broken.
Even if everything looks new, check to see if the air bag covers look like they are from the manufacturer. Inexpensive generic knock-off air bags will often lack the manufacturer’s logo and have a slightly different color or build quality to them. If your vehicle has been in a collision, this is also a good inspection to make when you pick it up from the repair shop. You want only factory parts when it comes to air bag systems. Less expensive generic parts will not do in this circumstance. Don’t risk a life to save a few dollars, it’s not worth it.
Finally, check the vehicle’s seat belts. They should be easy to pull out and retract quickly. If they are slow to retract or don’t want to retract at all, you might be looking at a vehicle that was improperly repaired or is missing the air bags altogether.