Airbags are one of those things in life that you need to have but hope you never have to use. We’re going to look at how they work, what they do, and even what to expect if it goes off.

What Do Airbags Do

Airbags are one of the most significant developments in car safety since the invention of the seatbelt and have saved countless numbers of drivers from serious injury and even death. 

The principle behind them is simple: when your car detects a crash, it quickly inflates several nylon cushions that fill up the space inside, reducing the chance of impact against the steering wheel, windows and other hard surfaces on the inside of your car.

Where Are Airbags Situated?

Where airbags are situated

The first airbags were developed all the way back in 1951 but weren’t widely adopted until the late ‘70s and only became standard equipment in the late ‘80s. 

Initially they only deployed from inside the steering wheel but were soon followed up with passenger seat airbags that exploded out of a panel in the dashboard. 

Since then, airbag technology has come on a long way. You can find airbags that deploy in between the passengers in the front and rear, curtain airbags that come from the ceiling to stop side impacts, knee bolster airbags that help protect your legs and even seat-belt airbags that protect your chest. 

Probably the most interesting new development in airbag placement are so-called “pedestrian airbags” though. They’re the first airbags that deploy on the outside of your car in front of the windshield to protect a pedestrian’s skull in the event of a front impact. 

What Injuries Do Airbags Prevent?

If you own a modern car with up to a dozen airbag deployment locations, there’s one for almost every part of your body, but the main impact protection points are your head, neck and chest. 

The classic steering wheel mounted airbag deploys to stop your head from hitting the windshield and works in tandem with your seatbelt to try and avoid serious whiplash and slow down forward motion.

The problem with getting into a crash is that your car will suddenly change direction or stop, but your body will want to carry on in a straight line. Properly functioning airbags will slow your body down from whatever direction the impact has come from, lessening the chance of injury or concussion.

What Are Airbags Made of and How Do They Work?

Inside the driver's air bag

An airbag system comprises of a series of sensors that connect to your car’s computer. When you get into a crash, one or more of these sensors are activated and they start a chain reaction that takes just a few tenths of a second from start to finish.

The airbags themselves are made from sturdy nylon that can be sewn into almost any shape to fit your body or the part of the car they’re installed in. They are inflated with nitrogen gas in less than the time it takes to blink your eyes. This incredible speed comes from the propellant system, which is made from solid fuel, like in a rocket. 

Once activated, the solid fuel charge explodes and quickly fills the nylon pillows around you with nitrogen gas. As they expand, they fill up the empty space in your car’s interior so that you can’t flail around and injure yourself. 

As your body is propelled forwards it meets the airbag and slows down your forward motion. Air vents on the back of the airbags allows them to deflate quickly so you’re not suffocated or held in place by them for too long.

Once your car has come to a stop, your airbags should have fully deflated. They must now be removed from your car and replaced with new ones, if the car isn’t written off by the accident. 

When Do Airbags Deploy?

One of the more challenging parts of airbag development was a way to set them off at the right time. The last thing car manufacturers wanted was for expensive airbag units to get set off by hitting potholes or after minor collisions.

The biggest development in earlier systems were mechanical sensors made from a small ball in a tube that was knocked loose on impact. The ball rolled down the tube and set off the airbag system, but only under the right conditions. 

The airbag system in a more modern car is controlled by a mixture of mechanical and digital sensors that constantly monitor speed and directional information. Once the right conditions are met by the car’s sensors and computers, the correct airbags are set off. 

As the computing power in cars improves, the future of airbag deployment is going to rely more on pre-emption of crashes rather than mechanical sensors. Using cameras, radar and laser sensors, your car will constantly monitor the road around you for hazards and deploy airbags before the crash has even happened.

What to Expect If Airbags Deploy

After airbags have deployed

Getting in a crash is a scary, potentially life-changing experience. Having an airbag deploy in front of you should save you from serious injury, but it’s undoubtedly a frightening experience. We’re going to take you through what you might expect to experience:

  1. The collision itself. It’ll probably happen in what feels like slow motion, even though it might only take a few seconds
  2. The noise of the impact might block out the loud bang of the solid fuel explosion that propels the airbags towards you
  3. The powder coating around the airbag will fly out with it and turn the inside of your car smoky
  4. The airbag will deflate immediately afterwards, and will allow you to escape if necessary

How to Reset an Airbag

If your car has been in an accident and the airbags have deployed, you should have them replaced by a trusted garage. Unless you are a skilled technician with experience fitting airbags, it’s not worth tinkering with what is a delicate system. 

You can purchase refurbished airbags and new airbag modules yourself and have them fitted if you want to save some money. If your airbag light won’t turn off even after your airbags have been replaced, you need to reset the code with a scanner. 

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