Do airbags really protect you in a collision?

Image of airbag demonstration with practice dummy in the driver's seat

Airbags are ubiquitous these days. To protect passengers in the event of a collision, all vehicles must be equipped with them. Along with seat belts, airbags are one of the main safety features in modern vehicles that directly interacts with the passengers inside to protect them. Although airbags may seem relatively simple in principle, in practice they are incredibly sophisticated systems which are constantly being improved to increase passenger safety. While airbags certainly keep passengers safe, there are also some dangers they introduce which are important to be aware of.

Why do we use airbags?

Airbags are designed to be used in the event of a collision with a sufficiently high force of impact. At low speeds, collisions aren’t dangerous enough to require the use of an airbag, so their use is not justified.

However, at high speeds, airbags are crucial in reducing the impact force experienced by the bodies of a vehicle’s passengers. Collisions result in a rapid change in the velocity of a vehicle. This is much more dangerous for passengers at higher speeds. The kinetic energy of both a vehicle and its passengers increases dramatically at higher speeds. Therefore, they require a much higher force to change in the event of a collision.

The force required to slow the vehicle down is designed to be absorbed by the body of the vehicle. This is done with crumple zones to minimize the damage done to the interior cabin. The force required to slow the bodies of passengers must come from within the vehicle. Seat belts provide some of the required force but are designed to only exert a force on a passenger’s torso and waist. Whereas a passenger’s body and head have to be stopped by whatever’s in front of them. Which is where airbags come in.

Airbags are designed to inflate extremely rapidly in order to slow a passenger’s body more carefully and evenly. This keeps them from hitting hard surfaces on the dash of the vehicle which can cause serious injury. Airbags also serve to slow a passenger’s head in order to reduce the risk of severe head and neck injuries.

How do airbags work?

Airbags are made using nylon fabric which allows them to be folded into small compartments in a vehicle until they’re needed. Vehicle sensors are used to detect the rapid changes in velocity experienced in the event of a collision. This then triggers airbags to inflate. Once triggered, sodium azide and potassium nitrate are allowed to react which results in a rapid production of nitrogen gas inside the airbags. This causes them to quickly inflate in the span of 1/25th of a second in order to protect passengers. The airbags will then slowly deflate through small holes in the fabric in order to get out of the way and allow passengers to easily leave the vehicle. A white powder, often talcum powder, will be present in the air and on surfaces as this powder is used to keep the airbag fabric from sticking to itself.

What are the risks of airbags?

Although airbags are used to protect the passengers in a vehicle in the event of a collision, they do come with some risks of injury.

The main risk posed by airbags is a result of the force generated during their rapid inflation. If passengers are seated too close to airbags, are leaned forward, or are sitting with their legs resting on their seat or dashboard, the force generated from an airbag inflating can cause serious injury. This is one of the reasons it’s very important to sit upright against your seat when travelling in a vehicle.

Another risk stems from the talcum powder coating the nylon fabric of airbags. This powder can sometimes linger in the air and cause breathing problems for passengers including asthma attacks and other respiratory issues.

Finally, the ignition used to initiate the reaction generating the nitrogen gas inflating the airbags can potentially ignite any flammable gases (e.g. gasoline fumes) present inside the vehicle.

The verdict

The benefits of airbags vastly outweigh their risks. When used properly, they are responsible for helping keep vehicle passengers safe in the event of a collision. If you’ve been involved in a collision, our auto body shop in Vancouver is here to help. From car painting and dent removal to full collision repair, we do it all. Our auto body shop has the tools, technicians, and tenacity to get the job done.

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