How do Airbags Work? & Is Your Airbag Safe?

By Angela Monroe - September 28, 2020


Airbags have not been popular over the last several years. On the back of the Takata recall, they’ve come under the microscope – we investigate how airbags work:

In this article, we’ll answer the question: Is your airbag safe?

Firstly, some background information:

car assembly

The first cars with airbags rolled off the assembly line in the early 1970s. These were first fitted in Oldsmobile Toronados and eventually other US-built cars. Although the technology was primitive, the results (kind of) proved a success and definitely showed potential.

During the 1980’s, technology improved and gradually airbags became a selling point for manufacturers. Airbags are now a key part of car safety in all kinds of passenger cars – some containing up to 10! All new cars sold in Australia have at least one airbag installed.

External airbags are now in development and may be just around the corner. These devices deploy when a vehicle detects an imminent and unavoidable collision. They aim to stop vehicles coming into contact with one another by using large airbags designed to absorb immense force.

How Airbags Work:

crash test

Airbags deploy with lightning speed. They explode out of their housing at around 322 kilometers per hour, deploying in 20 to 30 milliseconds. Bear in mind that the average eye blink takes about 400 milliseconds.

1: Cars have accelerometers. These devices detect sudden deceleration – aka: an accident. Manufactures program them not to trigger from hard braking – even if you jump on the brakes.

2: After sensing a crash due to sudden deceleration, the accelerometers send a message to the airbag heating element – like what you might find in a toaster.

3: The heating element triggers a chemical explosion which blasts out gas at ultra-high speed – as you’d expect from an explosion.

4: It’s this gas that’s harnessed to fill the airbag. The airbag is quite literally a nylon bag that fills with air (gas) from the explosion. 

5: The airbag is so fast that it ‘beats’ the speed of an accident and gets between a passenger and the interior of a vehicle, acting as a ‘pillow of air’.

6: As the passenger comes into contact with the airbag, air is pushed out of small holes in the airbag. This gives it the ‘shock absorbing’ affect that saves lives.

Is Your Airbag Safe?

deployed airbags

All airbags have the potential to cause harm. One way is if something gets caught between a passenger and the airbag, a phone for example. When this happens, instead of the soft, impact-absorbing airbag fabric touching the passenger, it’s a phone or other object.

Another way airbags can cause harm is hot gas – this is an issue with defective airbags. Airbag technology has significantly improved and this is an extremely rare occurrence.

Assuming passengers are wearing seatbelts and sitting in the correct position, injuries from airbags are extremely unlikely. 

Takata Recall in a Nutshell:

justice statue

The Japanese airbag manufacturer, Takata has recalled millions of airbags. The recall aimed at vehicles manufactured from 2002 to 2015 by 19 different automakers – so understandably, a massive number. The explosive compounds in some of the airbags made by Takata used cheaper materials that resulted in airbags deploying without reason. This issue was exacerbated by environmental moisture and extreme heat, ie: Australian summers.

Furthermore, the housing containing the airbag could shatter, causing shrapnel being thrown around the vehicle.

There have been 16 deaths reported from faulty Takata airbags worldwide.

Takata didn’t get off lightly. They were (predictably) taken to court and ordered to pay a massive $US1 billion ($1.3 billion AUD) penalty in fines and damages. In Japan, three former executives were charged with falsifying test reports.

To Sum Up:

airbag sign in car

Airbags save lives. That’s a fact. They are a major part of modern vehicle safety systems and when installed, maintained and used properly, pose little (if any) risk to vehicle occupants. Airbags have saved around 2700 lives and 36,000 serious injuries in Australia and nearly $20 billion since the early 1990s. Make sure your car has had its airbags swapped out for new ones if it’s required and always sit in the correct position.

Angela Monroe
Angela Monroe is the Community Manager at The Positive Group, specialising in giving people the information that they need when they need it, and putting you on the path to a fair financial future. She has 8 years of experience in helping Australians find the right finance solutions, and regularly contributes articles to empower Australians with the knowledge they need to become financially healthy.


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