Save Our Teen Drivers

Advocating for driver's education changes. Educating the public on the problem. Finding a solution that saves lives.

Airbag safety: getting the most out of this feature

Posted by lapearce on June 5, 2009

It’s been nearly 20 years since airbags became standard in cars. Today cars come with a myriad of the devices that turn the interior of a car into an inflatable bounce-house in an accident. Two decades later, however, and people are still not 100% sure how to properly use these safety devices.

How Airbags Work

The first step in airbag deployment is the actual collision. At this point in time, accelerometers in the car detect a sudden change in speed. This information is then sent to the inflater, telling it to inflate the bag.

The inflater then reacts sodium azide (NaN3) with potassium nitrate (KNO3), which creates nitrogen gas, to inflate the bag in .25 seconds at speeds between 180-200 mph. The inflation is basically a contained explosion happening right in front of your body, and it can pack quite a punch.

To demonstrate the force of airbag deployment I will use the video of this moron who thought it would be a good idea to put a skateboard over a car airbag, point it at his genitalia and deploy the bag. Luckily for the rest of us, I’m fairly certain he will be unable to pass those brilliant genes on to anyone else.

Airbag Myths

So you can see that people have good reason to be worried about airbags. A common mindset is that you should sit as far away from the airbag as possible. However, this causes problems in its own right. First, it won’t do you much good if you are too far from it. And secondly, sitting far back reduces your ability to control the car, increasing your chances for a crash.

I will prove that last point right now. If you would humor me, put your arms straight out in front of you as if you were holding onto a steering wheel. Your arms should be out far enough that the elbows are locked. Now, try to turn the steering wheel in your hands. You will find that you have a very limited range of motion, and also that it causes strain on your arms, back, neck, etc.

Bring your arms back in toward the body now, so that there is a  good bend in the arms and turn the wheel again. Do you see how much better that feels? There is no strain on the body, and you can turn the wheel more.

This change can be the difference between being in a crash and avoiding one. Also, when your arms are bent they can absorb the force of the collision better than if they are straight, where all of that force will go straight to your back and neck.

Proper sitting distance from an airbag

Proper distance from airbag

Proper distance from airbag

Airbags are most dangerous 2-3 inches from the steering wheel. The best distance to be from the bag is 10 inches. A good way to position yourself in the car is to sit with your back against the seat and set your arm on the top of the steering wheel. The wrist should hit the top of the steering wheel and your hand should hang behind it. Based on your own body dimensions you may need to tweak this a little.

How not to get hurt by this life saving device

First, always wear a seat belt. The SRS on your airbag stands for sublemental or secondary restraint system. The first system is the seatbelt. It takes a second to put on and it saves lives, so use it.

Secondly, adjust your seat as above to ensure that you are the proper distance from the bag. Too far is just as bad as too close.

Broken arms as a result of improper hand position on steering wheel

Broken arms as a result of improper hand position on steering wheel

Third, take a good look at the pictures above (especially the one with the dummy) and notice where the arms are. They are at 3 and 9, not 10 and 2, not at the top of the steering wheel or anywhere else. Like that gentleman with the skateboard learned, if you put something in between you and the airbag it will hit you at 200 mph. And it will hurt. Putting your hand at the top of the steering wheel is likely to break it, and/or send it into your forehead. 3 and 9 is the safest position for your hands if your airbag deploys. This also gives you the best control of the car to help avoid you needing to use it.

Forth, maintain the bag. Airbags should be serviced when the car reaches 10 years of age. If you get an airbag light indicator on in your car this means something is wrong with the system and that the bag may not deploy. It should be serviced ASAP to ensure that the bag is in proper working order. It doesn’t matter if your car has 10 airbags if a bad sensor means that they won’t deploy. The best airbag is a working one.

Here is some more information about seating distance and steering wheel position:

Steering wheel control

Steering techniques


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