MINNEAPOLIS CAR ACCIDENT LAWYERS: THE EFFICACY OF AIRBAGS
HOW DO AIRBAGS WORK?
Airbags are inflatable cushions built into a vehicle that protect occupants from hitting the vehicle interior or objects outside the vehicle (for example, other vehicles or trees) during a collision. The instant a crash begins, sensors start to measure impact severity. If the crash is severe enough, the sensors signal inflators to fill the bags with gas in a fraction of a second. The speed of a deploying airbag can reach up to 200 mph. Airbags are designed to offer the most protection when occupants are wearing safety belts and sitting properly in the seat. To determine the locations of airbags within a vehicle, look for the word “airbag” or “SRS” (supplemental restraint system) stamped into plastic or stitched into fabric in the vehicle interior.
Airbag systems do not typically require regular maintenance. A properly functioning airbag can last the lifetime of the car unless it deploys in a crash. A demonstration test conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that the original frontal airbags in a 1973 Chevrolet Impala deployed properly more than 20 years after the car was built.
The airbag light on the instrument panel indicates whether the airbags are functioning properly. If the airbags are working properly the warning light illuminates for a few seconds when the ignition is switched on. If the airbag warning light is flashing, remains illuminated with or without a warning beep or doesn’t illuminate during the ignition on cycle, the airbag requires maintenance and should be taken to service center.
Airbags must be replaced after deployment in a crash. Airbags should be replaced at a repair shop that uses original equipment manufacturer (OEM) replacement parts to ensure that the new airbag is not counterfeit.
WHAT KINDS OF AIRBAGS ARE COMMON IN TODAY’S VEHICLES?
Frontal airbags are designed to inflate in moderate to severe frontal crashes to prevent a person’s head and chest from contacting hard structures in the vehicle known to cause serious injuries. Typically, frontal airbags deploy within the first 50 milliseconds (0.05 seconds) of impact. They offer the most protection when occupants are wearing safety belts and sitting properly in the seat, but are designed to provide protection for all occupants. Newer airbags have advanced features that include a safety belt sensor and an algorithm to decide whether to deploy the bag in a given crash, depending on whether people are using safety belts. Typically a front airbag will deploy for unbelted occupants when the crash is the equivalent of an impact into a rigid wall at 10-12 mph. Most airbags will deploy at a higher threshold — about 16 mph — for belted occupants because the belts alone are likely to provide adequate protection up to these moderate speeds. Frontal airbags may deploy to help protect occupants in side impacts if there is sufficient forward movement during the crash.
The driver airbag is located in the steering wheel. The passenger airbag is located in the instrument panel. Some manufacturers provide supplemental knee airbags, mounted in the lower instrument panel. Knee airbags distribute impact forces to reduce leg injuries. They also help reduce forces on an occupant’s chest and abdomen by controlling movement of the occupant’s lower body.
Since the 1999 model year, the federal government has required automakers to install driver and passenger airbags for frontal impact protection in all cars, light trucks and vans. Most new vehicles had dual frontal airbags even before they were required safety equipment.
Head- and chest-protecting side airbags are designed to inflate in side crashes to prevent people’s heads and chests from contacting intruding parts of vehicle side structure, a striking partner vehicle or an object such as a tree or pole. Such contact can seriously injure properly belted occupants. A head-protecting side airbag is particularly important because it may be the only thing between the occupant’s head and the striking vehicle, since window glass can shatter in a crash. Because of the small space between an occupant and the side of the vehicle, side airbags must deploy very quickly, typically within the first 10-20 milliseconds of a side crash. Deployment thresholds can be as low as 8 mph for narrow object crashes (e.g., trees and poles) and 18 mph for the more widely distributed side impacts (vehicle-to-vehicle crashes). Several auto manufacturers deploy the side airbags in frontal crashes to help control occupant movement.
Torso-protecting side airbags typically deploy from the seatback to provide a cushion between the occupant’s chest and the intruding door structure. Some early models deployed from the door trim. Newer models deploying from the seat typically extend downward to provide additional protection to the pelvis. Torso airbags can also be found in rear outboard seating positions. Head-protecting curtain side airbags are typically located in the roof rail, and deploy downward to cover the window frame. These airbags may extend head protection into the rear seating areas. Often both a seat-mounted torso airbag and a curtain airbag are installed to provide head and torso protection. Another design providing protection for the head and torso is a combination bag, which deploys from the seatback and extends upward to cover both the torso and head. Regardless of type and location, side airbags cushion and spread the load of these impacts to prevent any part of the body from sustaining concentrated impact forces.
A head-protecting curtain airbag is often the only barrier between the passenger’s head and the striking vehicle.
A combination airbags deploying from the seatback provide protection for the head and torso, as well as a series of airbags for the torso and pelvis.
Rollover Deployment of Side Airbags
Side curtain airbags are designed to deploy in a rollover crash. These airbags typically inflate within the first 10-20 milliseconds of a rollover crash and can remain inflated longer than regular side curtain airbags (10 or more seconds) to protect during multiple-roll crashes. They typically cover the window opening and inflate more stiffly to prevent ejection of the occupant. A side curtain airbag used to meet the federal safety standard to prevent occupant ejection remains inflated for more than 10 seconds, covering multiple rolls of the vehicle, and keeps occupants contained inside.
Recent airbag innovations include inflatable safety belts, front-center airbags, external hood airbags, motorcycle airbags, and bicycle helmet airbags – to name a few.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE AIRBAGS IN REDUCING THE RISK OF DEATH IN A CRASH?
From 1987 to 2017, the NHTSA estimates that frontal air bags saved 50,457 lives. That’s enough people to fill a major league ballpark.
In frontal crashes, frontal airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29 percent and fatalities of front-seat passengers age 13 and older by 30 percent. The fatality reduction in frontal crashes is larger for belted drivers (52 percent) compared with unbelted drivers (21 percent). NHTSA estimates that the combination of an airbag plus a lap and shoulder seatbelt reduces the risk of death by 51 percent, compared with a 45 percent reduction for belts alone in frontal crashes.
NHTSA estimates that as of 2012-2016, 2,252 lives have been saved by side airbags. Side airbags with head protection reduce a car driver’s risk of death in driver-side crashes by 37 percent and a SUV driver’s risk by 52 percent, an analysis of U.S. crashes showed. Side airbags designed to protect only the torso reduce fatality risk by 26 percent for car drivers and by 30 percent for SUV drivers. A study of crashes in Australia found that side airbags with head and torso protection reduce a car driver’s risk of death or injury in driver-side crashes by 41 percent. Similar trends were found in a NHTSA study focusing on the fatality risk to drivers and right-front-seat passenger vehicles involved in nearside crashes. Curtain airbags and torso airbags together reduce the risk of death by 31 percent, and combination head/torso airbags reduce the risk by 25 percent. The death reduction was lower in vehicles equipped only with a curtain airbag (16 percent) or only with a torso airbag (8 percent).
The crucial role played by head-protecting side airbags is illustrated by the results of the NHTSA’s side-impact crash tests, which measure how well passenger vehicles would protect occupants in a side crash. Since the program began in 2003, all the vehicles earning good ratings have been equipped with side airbags that protect the head. However, airbags alone aren’t enough. Vehicles also need side structures that resist major intrusion into the occupant compartment.
WHAT CAN DRIVERS AND PASSENGERS DO TO PREVENT INJURIES FROM AIRBAG DEPLOYMENTS?
Vehicles provide optimal protection when occupants are belted and sitting in the proper position. Drivers and front-seat passengers should sit in the center of the seat upright against the seatback with feet on the floor. Arms and legs should never be resting against an airbag because the forces of a deploying airbag and the hot gases exhausted by the airbag may cause injury. Women in the late stages of pregnancy may not be able to get their abdomens far away enough from the steering wheel to be safe. They should avoid driving whenever possible.
Areas on or around airbags should be free of objects that can either alter the proper deployment of airbags or become dangerous projectiles within the vehicle. Aftermarket dash covers may block a frontal airbag and seat covers may block a seat-mounted side airbag from proper deployment or redirect the airbag in a way that is dangerous.
Drivers should sit with their chests at least 10 inches away from the center of the steering wheel. For shorter drivers with the seat positioned further forward, this can often be achieved by slightly reclining the seatback. Many newer airbags take into account seating position and deploy with less force if an occupant is sitting close. For drivers of older vehicles who cannot get far enough away from the steering wheel, pedal extenders or an airbag on/off switch may be an option. The government allows installation of switches on vehicles manufactured before Sept. 1, 2015.
Women in the late stages of pregnancy may not be able to get their abdomens far away enough from the steering wheel to be safe. There can be a risk of fetal injury from a frontal airbag if it inflates. However, without the airbag, there is a risk of fetal injury from hitting the steering wheel. Women in the late stages of pregnancy should avoid driving whenever possible. If they must drive, the combination of properly positioned safety belts and airbags offers the best protection.
Infants and Children:
How and where infants and children are restrained in a vehicle are critical factors in avoiding airbag-related injuries. Infants, particularly those in rear-facing safety seats, should never sit in the front because this puts an infant’s head too close to the frontal airbag. Rear seats are always safest for infants and children. Seventeen states have provisions requiring children of various ages to be seated in the rear. Even if your state’s law does not require children to sit in the rear, children 12 and younger should always sit restrained in rear seats.
If an adult is transporting too many children for them all to sit safely and comfortably in the back, the youngest children should ride in the back. When a child does need to ride in the front seat, the seat should be as far back as possible and the child should be securely buckled in a lap/shoulder belt and sitting against the seatback. If a driver routinely has to put a child in the front seat of an older vehicle, an airbag on/off switch may be considered.
Nearly all older children killed by frontal airbags were either unbelted or improperly belted. But even belted children can be at risk if they wiggle out of position or sit on the edge of the seat, putting the head too close to the airbag.
Children should not lean against the door area where the side airbag is stored because the initial deployment force may be harmful. With or without an airbag, children who lean against doors or lie down with their heads near the doors or sides of vehicles are at higher risk of injury in the event of a side impact. All vehicle manufacturers have committed to following a test protocol for designing side airbag systems that assures that the inflation injury risk is low, even for small children who might lie down or assume other positions against a deploying side airbag.
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