How do airbags work?

Airbags are actually one component of a three (3) part system designed to protect occupants of motor vehicles when they are involved in collisions. The system is comprised of 1) an airbag module, 2) a crash sensor and 3) a diagnostic unit. Newer cars may also be equipped with an on/off switch, which allows the system to be deactivated.

The air bag module (the actual “bag”) is a bag that made of lightweight fabric, and an inflator module and is located in the steering wheel pad or instrument panel of the dashboard. It is comprised of both an inflator unit and the lightweight fabric air bag. The airbag for the driver is considerably smaller that the passenger because of the distance the bag is from the occupant and the physical space in which the airbag is housed.

The Crash Sensors are commonly located in the bumper or grille of the vehicle, but may be located in the dashboard or passenger compartment in some models of cars. There can be a single sensor, or multiple sensors in a vehicle. Despite popular belief, the sensor is not activated by impact, per se, but is triggered by rapid deceleration, or the rate at which the vehicle slows down. As a result, the sensors do not activate at the same rate at all speeds and in all crashes. Sudden braking, or while driving on rough or uneven pavement, normally will not create enough deceleration to trigger the sensors to activate the system if it is functioning properly.

The last component, the Diagnostic Unit, monitors the status of the air bag system. Activated when the vehicle’s ignition is turned on, the Diagnostic Unit looks for functioning problems within the system and illuminates a warning light to alert the driver the system is not working properly. As a safeguard against power failure, most Diagnostic Units store sufficient electrical energy to trigger the airbag in the event the car battery is destroyed in the crash.

An airbag is designed to execute two primary functions when sufficient deceleration occurs. The bag is designed to provide a soft “cushion” between the occupant and hard surfaces within the vehicle, and diffuse the energy of the crash across a wider area. The deceleration sensor triggers the inflation of the airbag upon rapid deceleration, and within seconds allows the airbag to deflate. A front end collision with a solid, stationary object (such as a tree) at 10 to 15 miles per hour (the equivalent of a 28 mph front end crash with another car because the other car would absorb some of the energy) will trigger inflation, activating a mechanical switch, closing an electrical contact, signaling the sensors that a crash has occurred. The airbag’s inflation system contains sodium azide (NaN3) with potassium nitrate (KNO3), which mixes and creates nitrogen gas. The mixture of the nitrogen gasses inflate the airbag at speeds close to 200 mph.

When operating properly, an airbag will reduce the frequency and severity of injuries in a vehicle accident. Wearing lap/shoulder restraints such as seat belts and sturdily constructed vehicle roofs will enhance the effectiveness of a property functioning airbag. Unfortunately, as a result of airbag design and manufacturing defects, thousands of unnecessary injuries and occupant deaths occur every year.

Despite all of the innovative ideas to make airbags safer, they still pose a danger in the event they fail to perform in the way manufacturers intended them to, and many vehicles with older technology airbags are still on the road. If you, or a loved one, are injured as the result of an airbag malfunction, you need the help of an experienced and aggressive attorney to insure you receive all the compensation you are entitled to, and all of your rights are protected. The Law Office of Dan Newlin & Partners would be honored to help you. Please call us at (407) 888-8000. It is a call you will be glad you made.