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Can Airbags Kill You? Injuries, History, & FAQ

deployed airbags

Airbags are the second biggest lifesaving device in vehicles today, right after the seat belt. They save thousands of lives every year.

But there are also reports out there about them killing people. So, are airbags really lifesaving devices, or are they a death trap installed on the steering wheel?

The truth remains that airbags save lives, but we break down everything else that you need to know about them here.

car and road divider

Can Airbags Kill You?

Airbags come out with a great deal of force, which means that they can indeed kill you. They can deploy at speeds of excess of 300 miles per hour, and that’s a large amount of force coming at you all at once.

However, it’s worth noting that most airbag deaths come from two things. The first is if the person in the front seat is too small. This is especially prevalent on the passenger side of vehicles. Short drivers tend to adjust the steering wheel farther down, which helps.

Second, what causes an airbag to kill someone is when it accidentally deploys when it shouldn’t. The good news is that newer airbag systems are far better at preventing this, and if you drive a car from the ‘90s or later, it’s extremely unlikely that an airbag will deploy when it’s not supposed to.

deployed airbag
mage Credit: Pixabay

Common Airbag Injuries

While it’s extremely rare for an airbag to kill someone, injuries from airbags are common. The most likely injury is called irritant dermatitis. The chemicals inside an airbag, typically cornstarch or talcum powder, can easily irritate the skin.

Other potential injuries from an airbag detonation include lesions, burns, bone fractures, spinal injuries, concussions, and even respiratory problems.

But while none of these things are great, they’re not as bad as dying, which is what can happen if you’re in a serious accident without an airbag to save you.

How Do Airbags Work?

To understand why modern airbags are much safer and much less likely to accidentally deploy than airbags in older vehicles, you need to know how they work.

Airbags get readings from crash sensors, also known as impact sensors, which send a signal to the supplementary restraint system (SRS). When everything is going as it should, nothing happens.

But in an accident, these advanced sensors sense the impact and send the signal to the SRS to activate the inflator and set off the airbag. Newer vehicles pair this system with the seatbelt detection system. If the occupant isn’t wearing the seat belt, the airbag deploys at an impact equivalent to driving into a rigid wall at 10 to 12 mph.

However, if you are wearing your seatbelt, you’re less likely to need the airbag, so the airbag doesn’t go off until an impact is the equivalent of hitting that same wall at 16 mph.

Older systems weren’t as accurate, and the airbag could deploy at much lower speeds and much smaller impacts, when you didn’t really need it.

Image Credit: Pixel-mixer, Pixabay

Should Your Vehicles Have Airbags?

Since 1999, every new passenger vehicle in the United States needs to have an airbag system. The reason for this is simple: Airbags save lives.

The impacts can be rough, and they’ll occasionally even kill someone, but airbags save far more lives than they take.

The NHTSA estimates that frontal airbags saved 50,457 lives as of 2017 and that side airbags saved 2,252 lives as of 2012. Moreover, frontal airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29% in frontal crashes.

All the data states that vehicles with airbags save lives, so don’t tamper with them, and ensure that your vehicle’s airbag system is working before you get behind the wheel.

Keeping Yourself Safe With Airbags

While airbags do save lives, there are a few things that you can do to minimize the risks associated with them. First, when you’re driving, make sure the steering wheel points toward your chest, not your face. Second, don’t put children in the front seat of cars.

Third, whatever you do, don’t put anything on your airbag. Some people like to decorate their steering wheel with different charms and gems, and sometimes, those decorations can make their way to the airbag. If the airbag deploys, all those designs can turn into fatal projectiles. Stay safe and keep them off the airbag.

Finally, if you need to remove an airbag from your vehicle while working on it, disconnect the battery, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes before removing the airbag.

This will dispel any static electricity in the system that might accidentally set off the airbag when you’re removing it from the vehicle. Of course, when you’re putting everything back together, reinstall the airbag completely before reconnecting the battery.

car and road divider

Final Thoughts

While airbags can seem scary, they’re lifesaving devices that you want to have in your vehicle. You do need to respect them because they can turn deadly if you’re not careful with them.

But if you don’t plan on working on your vehicle, just leave them alone, and take comfort in the fact that they’re there if you need them.

Featured Image Credit: Maksim Vivtsaruk, Shutterstock


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