How Much Do You Really Know About Your Car’s Airbags?


Airbags. We hope to never see them and we don’t know much about them, yet we trust them with our lives.

Does that seem a little strange to you? Then maybe it’s time to up your airbag IQ.

How do airbags work?

Airbags are incredibly complicated, but they basically boil down to 3 main parts: the sensor, the inflation system, and the airbag itself.

The sensor is an expensive and technologically advanced piece of equipment that measures all sorts of crash factors, such as sudden stopping, increased pressure, tire speed, brake pressure, seat occupant status, and more. All of this data is relayed to the airbag control unit, which oversees all of the sensors. If the control unit determines that deployment is necessary, it sends a signal to the inflation system.

The inflation system then ignites and sets off a chemical reaction that releases hot nitrogen gas into the airbag. The airbag then bursts through the paneling and protects you from the crash.

The airbag itself is the most critical part of the airbag system, so it’s easily the most carefully designed safety feature in a vehicle. It’s made of a thin, nylon fabric (nylon 6,6 to be exact) that’s specially designed to be strong, heat resistant, energy absorbing, and long lasting.

How safe are airbags?

Airbags are responsible for saving thousands of lives in accidents every year. However, they can sometimes do more harm than good. A “normal” airbag deployment usually only causes minor abrasions and bruises. But if an occupant is out of position, for example a rear-facing infant in the front passenger seat, someone who is sitting too close to the airbag module, or someone who is improperly restrained/unrestrained, the airbag can actually be fatal. Deaths are extremely rare but it’s still important to take the proper precautions to prevent airbag injuries or fatalities.

  • Give your airbag enough room to inflate (keep at least 25 cm between your chest and the airbag)
  • Make sure the steering wheel is tilted toward your chest, not your head or neck
  • Don’t let passengers ride with their feet up on the dash
  • Don’t drape your arms over the steering wheel
  • Always wear your seat belt (properly!)

How long does it take for an airbag to deploy?

Airbags activate so quickly that you won’t even see it happen. They deploy in about 1/30th of a second, at speeds of up to 300 km/h. That’s faster than a blink of an eye!

How long have airbags been around?

The most basic automobile airbags (air-filled bladders) originated as early as 1941, but the first airbag patent wasn’t registered until 1951. It was based on a compressed air system that was either released by bumper contact or activated by the driver, but was too slow to do any good.

After a few more missteps by other engineers and inventors, the airbag industry finally saw a breakthrough in 1967: an airbag that could inflate in under 30 milliseconds. A few years later, Ford and General Motors started offering cars equipped with this automatic safety system. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Consumers weren’t interested in the product, and Ford and GM actually spent years lobbying against air-bag requirements, claiming that the devices were unfeasible and inappropriate. Finally, in the 1990s, airbags became widespread in North American vehicles.

Why do airbags sometimes fail to deploy during a crash?

Airbags aren’t designed to deploy in every accident. Activation is dependent on many things, including the speed of the crash, the impact direction, the crash sensor locations, and the airbag system’s overall design. In most cases where airbags failed to deploy, it was simply because the crash was moderate enough that airbags weren’t needed. Or, because the system detected a small child or adult in the front passenger seat and automatically deactivated the airbag.

Want to know more about what makes your car tick? Then be sure to check out our other great blog posts!


Write a Comment

Fields with * are required