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How Important Is An Air Bag To Car’s Safety?

When you are driving your car, you are probably not thinking about all the ways it can protect you in a car accident. Increasing speeds and more cars on the road have led to manufacturers coming up with more innovative ways of protecting you in the event of an accident. From materials that crumple, transferring momentum, to seat belts, there are dozens of safety features crammed into your vehicle. Yet, the airbag remains a feature in question. Is the airbag really that important? Or is it an uneasy feature?

Today, we’re going to explore how important an airbag is to a vehicle’s safety rating.

History of The Airbag

Airbags have been around for a long while, though the designs have been revised throughout the years. It is believed the first airbag designed for a vehicle was created in 1941, but it wasn’t until August 18, 1953, that American inventor John W. Hetrick received credit for his work. That same year, German engineer Walter Linderer received a patent for his work on the airbag.

Both Hetrick and Linderer’s model ran on a compressed air system that were released from the bumper or by the driver. However, in 1960, such airbags were deemed ineffective and impractical.

In 1967, Allen K. Breed brought about a breakthrough in modern-day airbags. He established a mechanically based ball inside a tube for crash detection that allowed for airbag deployment in less than 30 milliseconds. Sodium azide was used for airbag deployment.

During the early years of the 1970s, Ford experimented with airbags while General Motors fitted government-only vehicles with the technology. It wasn’t until 1973 that airbags were available to the masses.

Structure of an Airbag

There are many kinds of airbags—side airbags, curtain airbags, center airbags, and even seat cushion airbags—that are designed to prevent jostling and other major injuries to the most vulnerable parts of your body.

Most airbags followed the same design: cushion, inflator, and propellant.

  • Cushion – The airbag itself is made of nylon and coated with cornstarch or talcum powder. The powder prevents the fabric from sticking together during inflation. In some newer car models, the nylon has been replaced with silicone and urethane. The combination is stronger than nylon and doesn’t require any coatings to shield you from heat burns.
  • Inflator – Made of either stainless steel or cast aluminum, the inflator contains a filter of ceramic and steel wire that limits propellant contamination.
  • Propellant – This is how the airbag transforms from folded fabric to a massive balloon. The propellant is located within the inflator and is a solution of sodium azide and oxidizer. Combined, it forms nitrogen gas.

How Do Airbags Work?

The airbag is controlled by the ACU, a tiny crash sensor that also monitors things like brake pressure and speed. If the sensor hits a certain number, the system deploys the airbag. The impulse from the crash sensor transfers to the airbag’s inflator, which releases the propellant, producing nitrogen. This inflates the airbag at a speed of 186 mph (300 km/h).

The airbag prevents your body from hitting things that could cause fatal damage, such as the windshield, the sidewall, or the steering wheel.

But are airbags important? Consider Newton’s First Law of Motion, which says that an object in motion stays in motion unless a force of equal or opposite velocity interacts with it. When you are in a vehicle, you are not sitting still—you’re moving at the same speed as the car itself. So, when you get into an accident, the car (and you) decelerates rapidly. Your body and brain will want to stay in motion. If this momentum isn’t stopped, your brain will slam into your skull, resulting in brain damage. Or, your chest wall could collapse against the steering wheel, impacting your heart, lungs, or other organs.

Studies About Airbags

This raises a question: Are airbags as effective as seat belts in stopping forward motion in an accident? Or do they need to go hand-in-hand with seat belts?

There are several studies to consider. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 1987 to 2017, airbags saved 50,457 people. Furthermore, airbags lower the severity of head injuries.

Of course, we can’t overlook that some people have been severely injured or even killed by airbag deployment, particularly at lower speeds. One study from 2005 found that, when not wearing seat belts, occupants involved in accidents at low speeds have an increased incidence of death by airbag—about 4 times higher. This is particularly true for small children and petite women.

Now, some people might assume that this directly contradicts the idea of safety. However, you have to look at the conditions. Most deaths happen when people are not wearing their seat belts. In other words, the effectiveness of airbags is directly correlated to the effectiveness of your seat belt. No seat belt, less momentum control.

This was detailed in a 2016 crash test on Indian car models. Only one of the cars (Renault KWID III) had a driver airbag, and it was one of the few that actually had a green rating for protecting the driver’s skull.

How Important Is An Airbag To Car’s Safety?

These days, almost every vehicle is fitted with airbags, so knowing how they work and how to ensure you and your passengers’ safety is crucial. You know now that airbags work in conjunction to seat belts to dispel the shock of an impact in a motor vehicle collision. Without airbags, seat belts could save your life, but you still could get severe injuries. With an airbag and seat belt, your risk of injury or death is significantly reduced. Therefore, airbags are important to safety but are only optimized by using your seat belt, too.

Elmer’s Auto Body can help keep your car safe throughout the years with expert maintenance solutions and collision repairs. For more information on our services, contact us by filling out the contact form or giving us a call.

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