Airbags 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, airbags slow the forward momentum of the driver and passengers during the abrupt change in speed that happens during a collision.
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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. airbags help 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 is quite impressive. The airbag’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.
When they first became available, airbags were only installed in the front dashboard area of the vehicle, with the driver’s side airbag found in the steering wheel and the passenger’s airbag emerging from the dashboard. Encouraged by the life-saving effects of properly designed front airbags, many manufacturers have expanded the technology to include side airbags that deploy from the vehicle’s seatback or door during a side-impact collision. Curtain airbags typically drop from the vehicle’s ceiling protect occupants’ heads, while some models include a front center airbag that inflates between the front seats to protect occupants from a collision on the opposite side of the car.
Knee airbags deploy under car’s dashboard, saving the driver and front-seat passenger’s kneecaps from hard impact in a high-speed frontal crash. Inflatable seatbelts expand the surface area of the traditional seatbelt 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 airbags 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 airbag deploys can cause serious injury if precautions are not followed. The primary risk of injury is when the airbag deploys within 2 to 3 inches of the occupant. The blunt force can cause severe bruising, broken bones, dislocated joints or even 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 airbag. 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 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.
Special Precautions for Children
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 airbag 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 or booster seat that is appropriate for their age and size. airbags can cause serious injury or kill small 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 airbag. These systems are referred to as “advanced frontal airbags” and are a requirement of all passenger cars, pickups, SUVs and vans produced after September 1, 2006.
The significance of a vehicle’s airbags is beyond measure when it comes to preventing injury and saving lives, but that’s not the only value of these mechanical wonders. Vehicle airbags are expensive, often costing thousands of dollars to replace once they have been deployed in an accident. Insurance companies understand the value of airbags 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 airbags unrepaired. It doesn’t take much to conclude that airbag fraud has put a number of people at risk. But how do we protect ourselves as consumers?
What Can I do to Avoid Airbag 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 for recommendations and search online for complaints and compliments before spending money at a dealership that you aren’t familiar with. Second, if you are buying a used vehicle, use the free airbag check on this page and 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 airbag 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 airbag 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 airbag system to the check list. When you turn on the vehicle an airbag 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 airbag system. Be leery of excuses made by individuals, dealers and mechanics if 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 airbags 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 airbag system was previously repaired or replaced. In a worst-case scenario, the airbag system could still be broken. Even if everything looks new, check to see if the airbag covers look like they are from the manufacturer. Inexpensive generic knock-off airbags 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 airbag 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 airbags altogether.