Airbags have been around for a long time. In fact, the very first sensor-based airbag was invented as far back as 1968 by one Allen Breed. However, it would not be deployed in passenger cars until 1973 when General Motors infused the airbag in the 1973 models of the Oldsmobile Toronado. Before then, the technology was only found in US government-owned 1973 models Chevrolet Impalas.
Fast forward from then, other major auto industry players and vehicle manufacturers also infused the new driver safety standard in their cars as a standard safety feature. Today, there is virtually no car that leaves any vehicle production facility without a fully tested and functional airbag system in place. In fact, modern innovation and technological advancement mean that we now even have rear seat airbags and curtain airbags as opposed to the driver side front airbags that were the only airbag options available back then.
1. What are airbags?
Before we highlight how airbags work, first we like to throw light on what airbags really are like and what Airbags are made of. Airbags are generally made of woven nylon of different grades, with the most common being Nylon 6,6 and now Nylon 4,6. Other material types are also being considered for use as airbag materials like polyesters and their modifications. These nylon materials are then fashioned into inflatable cushions built into steering wheels and compartments of the dashboard to serve as a form of restraint.
This system of restraint offers vehicle occupants protection against crashing into solid interior frames within a car like the steering and windshields, in the event of a frontal collision or accident.
Airbags are designed to deploy rapidly when a crash occurs
2. How do Airbags work?
The airbags deploy rapidly in the event of a crash, inflating to full size almost immediately. However, they are also designed to deflate in a considerably fast manner such that the passenger is protected against injury. Airbags generally inflate to full size in approximately 1/20th of a second which is rapid enough to respond to high impact crashes. On the other hand, the airbags which get filled up with nitrogen gas also deflate at some good pace about 1/3 of a second, which is just gradual enough to allow for an injury-free engagement for the occupant of the car.
The moment a considerable crash impact is detected by the sensors, a strong electrical impulse is sent to the airbag canister which immediately detonates a low-level charge that supplies enough heat to cause the sodium azide to decompose rapidly, thus releasing about 68 liters of nitrogen required to fill up the airbag.
Note: Sodium Azide is a chemical compound that which when exposed to heat decomposes rapidly to release nitrogen and other compounds
3. Inherent dangers with airbags
As important as airbags are, these important safety components can pose real dangers to vehicle occupants when they deploy if the occupants are not properly positioned. The truth is, that airbags usually deploy with a good amount of force occasioned by the mild explosion that occurs during deployment.
Watch the video below to see the momentum of the airbag when it deploys.
Video: What happens when an airbag goes off?
Such force of deployment asks a lot of questions and can pose a considerable threat to passengers if recommendations are not followed. It is important to note that, safety industry regulations recommend that for optimum safety, passengers must always wear their seatbelts. Your chances of surviving a high impact crash increase if you had your seatbelts on and the airbag deploys appropriately. Now the big question is, how far should you be seated from where your car's airbags are installed or deploy from?
4. How far should you be seated from airbags?
There are some general principles that are supposed to guide vehicle passengers on the recommended sitting distance and position from where the airbags are located and deploy from.
4.1. Drivers position
For the drivers, standard practice is that he or she sits about 10 inches away from the steering wheel where the airbags are installed. To make sure you are at least 10 inches away from your steering wheel, you can make use of the standard 30 cm ruler that you can easily buy from a book store. Place it on the center of your steering wheel and then adjust your seat so that your chest bone is just a little distance away from the tip of the ruler. That is a good enough distance you should keep.
Don't forget, your chest bone should be 10 inches away from the center of the steering wheel
It is fundamentally dangerous to move your seat very close to your steering wheel, as we commonly see some drivers do on the road. Please avoid doing this for your own safety. If you think that the 10 inches recommended distance will seriously impair your ability to reach down to the control pedals, we advise that you still move your seat forward to a distance that is okay for you, then recline your seat backward such that the distance between your chest and the center of the steering wheel is still 10-inch in distance.
However, it is best that you also adjust your steering wheel downwards such that it aligns with your chest bone. This is to make sure that in the event that the airbag deploys, it will be facing your chest area rather than deploy into your face.
Avoid sitting so close to the steering wheel of your car
4.2. Front seat passenger
For front-seat passengers, the recommended distance between the chest bone and the steering center is best set at 20 inches. Usually, the airbags for the front passenger seats are much larger than those on the driver's side, thus the more reason you should make sure you are at least 20 inches from the dashboard gauges compartment where the airbags are installed.
4.3. For side and curtain airbags
For side and curtain airbags that deploy very close to the side windows, it is usually recommended that you sit at least 5 inches away from the side glasses. This is to mitigate the danger of being injured by the deploying airbag which will deploy out downwards or sidewards with considerable force as the case may be.
4.4. Rear seat passengers
For rear-seat passengers, the rule is to also wear your seatbelt. However, some automakers are now developing rear seat airbags that deploy from the back area of the front seat. In fact, Mercedes Benz announced last year that it was developing a pioneering rear seat airbag system that the company said will soon become a standard feature in future models.
4.5. For children
It is usually advised that children should always seat in the rear seats, securely fastened with seatbelts. If you have babies, please make sure that they are surely seated in an appropriate baby seat and securely fastened. It is recommended that you don't put rear-facing or front-facing baby seats on the front passenger seat, as deploying airbags can cause serious injury to the baby in an event of a crash.
Make sure to firmly secure the child to their seats in the back seat of the car
After reading through this article, I am more than certain a lot of us will likely change our seating position especially after watching the video above. It's best to follow industry recommendations and save yourself the issues that come with unexpected events.
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