It’s hard to believe, but energy-absorbing steering columns saved more lives in 2002 than did front airbags. According to NHTSA, during that year 2,473 accident victims would’ve bought the farm had it not been for these nylon pockets of nitrogen gas. The numbers are likely to increase as older cars without airbags are retired and replaced by new models. All passenger cars have been required by the government to include front dual airbags since 1998, with light duty trucks following in 1999.
Airbags expand in a fraction of a second, after a crash sensor sets off a trigger to ignite an inflator. They improve safety for adults by absorbing crash energy and preventing the driver or passenger’s contact with the windshield or A-pillar. For children under 13, NHTSA recommends either riding in the vehicle’s rear seat or turning off the passenger airbag, as the rate and direction of inflation can cause serious harm to children. On/off passenger airbag switches are available in vehicles without rear seats, such as roadsters or pickup trucks.
So-called “depowered” airbags with slower inflation rates debuted about five years ago to help reduce the injuries associated with airbag inflation and impact. Depowered airbags have been created in response to unbelted riders or individuals seated too close to an airbag who have been injured by what equates to being hit with a hard pillow at 200 mph. Ford is one company that now offers airbags with 20 to 35 less pressure, aimed at balancing safety benefits with minimal risk of injury.
More recently, dual-stage and smart airbags have been developed. Dual stage airbags offer two levels of inflation depending on crash severity – full pressure for hard impacts, less for more minor hits. Smart airbags include sensors that determine the weight or position of the occupant to determine whether or not to fire the front passenger airbag.