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How Do Airbags Work? Types, Safety, & FAQ

deployed airbags

Airbags are often the topic of discussion when there is a car accident or public discussion about car safety–and rightfully so. To date, it’s reported by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis that airbags have saved over 50,000 lives all on their own.

But the actual mechanics of airbags and how and when they are deployed can be a bit of a mystery if you’ve never been in a car accident. So, if you simply want to go beneath the surface regarding their mechanics, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve done a bit of digging to find the most relevant information on how bags actually work. Let’s discuss.

car and road divider

What Are Airbags Exactly?

Before we discuss how airbags work let’s discuss what they are in detail to help get a better understanding of their functions. An airbag is a safety device common to most late-model vehicles that is designed to automatically inflate within fractions of a second upon collision. The instant inflation of an airbag helps to minimize the forward motion and impact of a driver and passengers.

This in turn prevents passengers from being ejected from the vehicle or slamming hard against the sides or front of the vehicle. The driver’s steering wheel is actually located inside of the wheel itself and helps to reduce impact in the event that the driver has a head-on collision. This prevents the driver from actually slamming into the wheel itself.

Airbag Deployed
Photo Credit By: Pixel-mixer, Pixabay

How Do They Work?

Most if not all modern cars have airbags installed inside the driver’s steering wheel and many also have airbags installed on the sides of the doors of the vehicle as well. All of the airbags are connected to an electrical system within the car that has sensors to determine when it’s time to deploy.

When the sensors determine that deployment is needed, they’ll trigger the ignition of gas inside of the airbags, which causes them to almost instantly inflate. After the airbags inflate, they will automatically begin slowly deflating as the gas is released through small vents at the opening of the bag.

Every car manufacturer has different specifications for their airbags and there are national standards that the bags must adhere to. For example, the airbags must be a certain size, in specific locations in the vehicle, and must be able to inflate within a certain time. To be deemed effective and receive certification.

When Should They Deploy?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that airbags should be deployed when a vehicle hits a rigid wall or surface at a speed of 10 to 14 mph. However, most airbags will deploy and add a bit of a higher threshold, such as 15 mph. In many cases, a functioning and properly worn seat belt will be enough to provide adequate protection for crashes within this speed range.

That being stated, certain factors can prevent an airbag from inflating.

Many of these factors include the following:
  • The vehicle’s rate of speed upon crash
  • The area of a pact
  • The functionality of the airbag’s sensors
  • The overall design of the airbag system
  • The placement of the airbag sensors

There are rare cases where airbags simply don’t deploy because they have either been installed incorrectly, have mechanical issues within the bag itself, or have sensors that are faulty. There are also cases where airbags cause physical injuries to the driver or other passengers.

These injuries shouldn’t be glossed over and can be severe enough to warrant a visit to the hospital. It’s for this reason that it’s always important to seek medical treatment if you were involved in an accident where airbags were deployed.

Most Common Types of Airbag Injuries

Airbag deployment, though it can save a life, can also cause injuries to drivers and passengers. Here are some of the most common airbag-related injuries.

Photo Credit: Pixel-mixer, Pixabay

Facial Injuries

Probably the most common type of injury from airbag deployment is that to the face. This is due to the location of the airbag in relation to the seat and steering column. Your face is the most vulnerable area in a crash, even with side airbags. The reason is that injuries to the head can be the most fatal in both head-on and side collisions.

Although the airbag protects your face from being in direct contact with the windshield’s glass, the force of an airbag could strike your eye or break bones. It’s very possible to sustain permanent or temporary blindness through eye damage. And if the impact is severe enough, concussions can also occur which can have temporary or lasting health effects.

Chest Injuries

Airbags are designed to stop a driver’s body from being thrown from the car in the event of a collision. The chest area can easily be injured as the airbag deploys due to the sheer force that it deploys and the impact that it may have on your body. Broken bones and/or soft tissue damage are not uncommon in people who’ve had car collisions resulting in airbag deployment.

Back and Neck Injuries

An airbag can also impact your back and spine. In moderate and severe collisions, a person’s body sustains a lot of force. This can cause whiplash and injuries to the spinal column discs and back. So, it’s not uncommon for car crash survivors to require chiropractic care after a serious accident.

medic helping injured man
Photo Credit: Piqsels


Airbag deployment speed can also cause superficial abrasions and burns– similar to seat belts that are known to cause “rug burns” around the neck and chest upon collision. The most common areas of airbag burn injury are the arms and face. Also, the fabric of the passengers’ clothes may come in contact with their skin and cause a reaction similar to rug burn.

car and road divider

Serious Internal Injuries

Inhaling the inner gases released during deployment can cause irritation to the passengers’ lungs and in some cases may even cause asthma attacks. Airbag dermatitis is sometimes a common occurrence in drivers who have head-on car collisions. It’s a condition where the skin can become inflamed from the chemicals released during deployment.

Additional damage to organs can be caused by excessive pressure on the abdomen, such as lacerations to the liver, lungs, or spleen. And in extreme cases, bruising or bleeding can occur.

This explains why many vehicle experts recommend that those drivers and passengers sit at least 10 inches away from the area where an airbag will deploy in the event of a collision. This is also why you should always seek medical attention if you’re in an accident in which the airbag deploys. Sometimes internal injuries cannot be determined on the spot, and you may not show any visible signs until after the accident.

car and road divider

Wrapping Things Up

Vehicle airbags work by almost instantly inflating upon collision of the vehicle with another vehicle or hard surface. The airbags are positioned in a car to prevent drivers and passengers from receiving head and bodily injuries upon impact and they may also cause bodily injuries as well. Before you purchase a vehicle, it’s helpful to check out the vehicle’s safety ratings and read the manufacturer’s details regarding its airbags.

Featured Image Credit: Maksim Vivtsaruk, Shutterstock


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