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What to Know About Air Bags?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 08, 2022

In the event of a car crash, air bags provide added protection to that provided by seatbelts. The various types of airbags are similar in one respect. They inflate rapidly on any impact and keep the driver and passenger from hitting the steering column or dashboard. Air bag benefits are well-known, but airbag injury is an important concern. While saving the lives of adults and teenagers, airbags can be dangerous and even fatal for young children. 

Air Bag Overview

Air bags work best as additional safety devices when combined with seat belts. Front and side-impact air bags are designed to deploy with moderate to severe crashes. However, they may inflate with minor impacts, too.

Air bags provide additional safety only. You shouldn't think of them as seat belt replacements. They reduce the chances of your upper body or head dashing against the vehicle interior in the event of a crash. To avoid airbag injury, you should be seated properly with firmly secured lap and shoulder seat belts.

How Do Air Bags Work?

After an impact, the air bag system's control unit sends a signal to the inflator within each airbag. The inflator has an igniter which begins a chemical reaction to produce a gas. The air bag then bursts out of its housing and inflates. This entire process happens in one-twentieth of a second or less.

The chemical used in airbags is sodium azide. When ignited, it produces nitrogen gas. Nitrogen is an inert, safe gas and poses no dangers. Sodium azide is a toxic substance. But it is completely consumed by the airbag deployment.

Despite the name, air bags are not like balloons. They deploy at a very high velocity and can cause injuries. Injury is more likely if the passenger is leaning forward and is close to the airbag when it begins deployment. Sitting back in the seat, far from the dashboard or steering column, is safe.

Air bags are single-use. Once they deploy, you can't reuse them. You need to go to an authorized service center and get them replaced.

Air Bag Safety

Air bags deploy at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour and can cause injuries. For safety, there should be at least a 10-inch distance between the steering wheel and the driver, and twice as much between the front passenger and the dashboard. 

All children under 13 years of age should ride in the rear seat. A child in a rear- or front-facing car seat in the front passenger seat can be hit on the head by the air bag deployment. Brain injuries and deaths can happen. 

If you transport many children, make sure there are enough seats in the back. If a child needs continuous monitoring during travel, an adult should be with them in the back seat. Children under 13 years are safest in the back seat. Only under exceptional circumstances, should a child ride in the front passenger seat. You must have an airbag on-off switch installed, and remember to prevent airbag deployment when the child is riding in front.

Airbags are designed to work with seat belts to keep front-seat passengers and drivers safe. The steering column should be tilted upwards rather than pointing at the driver's chest. Move the passenger seat as far back as possible. You should sit upright against the seat. The lap and shoulder seat belts should be firm. Never lean forward to operate the radio or music system.

When rescuing someone from a crash with the airbag deployed, you needn't worry about any danger from the airbag. The dust from the airbag may irritate your skin or eyes, and wearing gloves and eye protection is wise. Try to keep the dust away from the crash survivor, too. Wash hands after exposure to airbag dust.

Airbag Injury

Airbags have saved thousands of lives in car crashes. But they're designed for high-speed deployment on impact and can cause injuries, too. 

Children are at high risk in the front seat. The air bag comes out of the dashboard at the level of the child's head. Children are twice as likely to suffer injuries in a crash if near an airbag. Several children have died of airbag injuries. Tragically, most of these were in low-speed impacts that passengers would probably have survived without airbag deployment.

Airbag injury is likely with counterfeit airbags. These fake airbags often perform poorly and do not deploy when needed. They can also expel metal shrapnel during deployment. You should have your car inspected if you have had your airbags replaced at a repair shop that's not part of your car manufacturer's dealership.

Airbags cause no chemical injuries. The sodium azide they contain is used up when they deploy, and the gas produced, nitrogen, is not harmful (The air we breathe is 78% nitrogen). The dust released from air bags may have some sodium hydroxide in it. This may be mildly irritating.

Airbag On-Off Switch

Airbags are considered life-saving equipment, and you should not switch them off. Installing an airbag on-off switch requires permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Such permission is granted if the airbag deployment poses a danger:

  • If a child must ride in the front passenger seat because of a medical condition that requires monitoring
  • If there is no rear seat available for a child and they must ride in the front passenger seat
  • If the driver needs to sit close to the steering wheel, usually because of short stature
  • If there are certain medical conditions that make it safer to turn off the airbag

An airbag on-off switch reduces the safety of other adults or teenagers who use the car. A switched-off airbag puts passengers at increased risk of a chest, head, or neck injury. As far as possible, you should avoid using an airbag on-off switch. 

Pregnancy is not a reason to turn an air bag off. If you're pregnant, use well-fitting seat belts, and move your seat as far back as it will go.

Types of Airbags

The classic air bags have been in use since the 1990s. They have saved thousands of lives. Improved air bags, called advanced air bags, are now being installed.

Advanced airbags can detect the weight and height of the passenger in the front seat. If they detect a small-stature passenger or child, these airbags do not deploy. They have sensing systems that control whether they deploy at all and how much. Even with advanced air bags, children under 13 should not ride in the front seat. 

 In the past 30 years, air bags have saved over 50,000 lives. They protect passengers from injury in crashes but can be dangerous themselves. Knowing how air bags work, and their dangers, will allow your family to travel safely in a car equipped with air bags. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:
The American Academy of Pediatrics: "Air Bag Safety for Children."
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Air Bags."
Minnesota Safety Council: "Air Bags."
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: "Air-Bag–Associated Fatal Injuries to Infants and Children Riding in Front Passenger Seats."
Occupational Safety and Health Administration: "Automobile Air Bag Safety." 
United States Department of Transportation: "Air Bags."

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