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The Story About Airbags: How Do They Work? Are They Safe?


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The idea of airbags has been around for awhile now. An airbag is essentially an inflatable bag of air that cushions the impact of an individual when involved in a crash. While seatbelts were formally the only form of passive restraint in vehicles for years, since 1998 all vehicles must be installed with an airbag safety device as well. Each vehicle that is sold in the United States must have an airbag on both the passenger and driver’s sides. There are some vehicles that are even equipped by with side door and seat mounted airbags as well.

How an Airbag Works

The purpose of an airbag is to slow the driver or passenger’s forward motion in an even manner, all within the fraction of a second. The airbag has three components that help accomplish this.

The first component is the bag itself. This bag is typically made out of a very thin nylon material. This bag is folded into either the steering wheel or the dashboard of the vehicle. The more recent technology has allowed the bag to be folded into the side doors and even the backs of the seat.

The second component is the sensor. The sensor is what tells the bag when it needs to inflate. Airbags are designed to inflate when there is a force that is equal to running into a wall at around 10 to 15 miles an hour. When this force is detected a switch is flipped that will close an electrical contact to tell the sensor that an impact has occurred. The information is received by an accelerometer that is inside a microchip of the sensor.

The inflation system is the third component of the system. It uses sodium azide and potassium nitrate combined to produce a nitrogen gas. This nitrogen is what inflates the airbag. This whole process takes less than 1/25th of a second to complete.

When the airbag is inflated a white powdery substance appears this is usually cornstarch or talcum powder, which is used to help keep the bags pliable when they are in storage.

Safety Concerns

Since the installation of airbags, experts have stated that they are to be used in addition to wearing a seatbelt. This is because an airbag will only work in a head on collision and will not inflate when a side swipe or other type of collision occurs.

The other issue that has come up with the use of airbags is that the actual force of the inflation can cause injury if the individual is too close to it. It was found that the risk zone for injury from an airbag is within 2-3 inches of the inflation. The recommended distance to sit away from the airbag is 10 inches. You should measure this distance from the center of the steering wheel to your breastbone and adjust your driving position accordingly.

For children, the rules are different as an airbag can seriously injure a child and it is recommended that children under the age of 12 should not sit in a passenger seat where an airbag is engaged.

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