Is My Car Safe with Airbags?

Airbag Deployed

Most vehicles nowadays are equipped with more than just one airbag in the car. In a vehicle collision, specific airbags will deploy based on the location of impact. It’s becoming more common to see side doors, pillars, and even seat airbags in cars.

Your vehicle is unquestionably safer with airbags present. Airbags protect you and your passengers inside the vehicle at the moment of collision. Both the airbags and seat belts should deploy instantaneously to ensure maximum safety.

According to recent crash test data done by the US Department of Transportation, airbags save lives, unquestionably. They do all kinds of tests to ensure vehicles operating on the road meet the safety requirements. You’re twice as likely to survive when you wear a seat belt, and when paired together with other occupant-restraint components such as airbags, the probability of your survival only goes up.

How Airbags Works

There are various sensors throughout the exterior of your vehicles typically known as impact sensors. When that impact sensor receives a signal at the moment of impact, it’ll trigger the occupant-restraint system which includes both the seat belts and the airbags.

The airbags themselves are made up of a few components that allow them to work properly. The airbag itself is made up of a soft impact cushion that detonates an inflator which propels the airbag out the trim via a flexible bag.

Once the impact collision sensor gets triggered, within 1/20th of a second the airbags will deploy at speeds of 200mph and greater. It’s an explosive event, literally! By the time you realized what happened, the airbags have already done their job.

All this crash data is stored on a centralized airbag systems unit called the ‘airbag control module.’ It stores crash-test data which can be reset, otherwise, the computer would need to be replaced. The airbag module also stores relevant data of the crash event including how fast the car was going and what component was activated. Similar to an airplane black box.

The inflator itself works in essence like a bullet which sounds scary but it helps save your life. Once the impact sensor triggers the igniter behind the airbag that needs to deploy, the igniter will use a mixture of gunpowder to deploy the airbag. That’s why you may see powder residue on the airbag itself.

Different Types of Airbags

In 1973, Oldsmobile Toronado was the first publically sold car with a passenger-side airbag. As time went on, having a driver-side airbag was becoming an option that later became a standard on all vehicles.

Due to the complexity in design, resources, and cost, it would be many years for carmakers to begin implementing airbags not just in the steering wheel and passenger-side dashboard, but the pillars, seats, seat belts, and doors.

With certain technological breakthroughs and newer safety standards being mandated, cars are safer now than they’ve ever been before. A recent study was done by the University of Alabama, showing just how effective side-airbags are in a collision.

It makes sense to have all these additional airbags because depending on the area of impact if the car is hit on the side doors, the front airbags won’t be of much help. The biggest concern of getting it right when it comes to airbags is largely dependent on the carmakers.

You don’t want a hyper overly-sensitive airbag system where a small hit to the wheel deploys all the airbags all at once but on the other side of the coin, you also don’t want to be in a situation where at the moment of impact, the airbags don’t deploy at all!

This is why it’s always good to ensure that your airbag system is working correctly by getting your vehicle’s computers scanned. If there are any fault codes when the time comes, you won’t be able to pass inspection but even worse the airbags might not work correctly.

How Do Airbags Work With Seat Belts?

Seat belts play a large role in keeping the vehicle occupants alive and well. Airbags alone will be of little help if you’re not fastened by a seat belt during a moment of collision. During an impact, the momentum of the car can hurl the passengers forward with great force. To counteract this, seat belts are also charged with explosive igniters that deploy instantaneously during a collision.

Certain carmakers like Ford have been experimenting with an actual airbag in the seat belt itself for a while now, but the most commonplace type of explosive occupant-restraining device on a seat belt is in the seat belt retractor-housing itself. This is usually hidden behind the door pillar where the seat belt retracts.

Another area where the seatbelt is fastened during impact is in the seat belt buckle itself where the seat belt clicks into. Not all cars have this since this is currently still optional but I can see it quickly becoming a standard on all cars.

Seat Belt Buckle

The reason it’s a good idea to have a two-stage detonator is that one is set to detonate at a low-speed impact event and the other detonates at a high-speed impact event. To us drivers, it may seem trivial since a seat belt simply restrains the person that’s buckled up but thanks to advanced tech that split-second decision processed by the computer via sensors can ultimately save your life.

People that have been in a collision where the seat belts are deployed will attest that it’s not just a quick seatbelt lock activated, but rather, the explosive igniter forces the seat belt to retract and pull much tighter on a person. This counterforce along with airbags deploying is what saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year on the road.

Airbags alone cannot help you as much as they can when paired with seatbelts. If the driver is not fastened via seatbelt and is hurled at the driver’s steering wheel at the moment of collision, the chances of increased injuries go up rapidly.

What To Do If The Airbags Have Been Deployed Or Recalled

Only a certain amount of airbags will deploy depending on the area of impact. If all the airbags were deployed, the vehicle was either in a serious accident or the impact sensors were overly sensitive.

If you have sensitive skin, the airbag detonation may irritate your skin due to the gunpowder residue but considering the airbags just saved your life, it’s a small price to pay. Once the airbags have deployed they’re no longer reusable and by law are required to be replaced.

An insurance agent typically assesses the damage. Insurance and repair costs are determined by the coverage and the person at fault for the collision. How much the repairs cost out-of-pocket may vary widely which we’ll discuss in the next section. Once the vehicle is deemed repairable, it’s sent to an auto shop where they first read the airbag module for crash-event data and send it to your insurance.

There have been known factory recalls on airbags components such as faulty inactive igniters and dangerous metal components from the inflators themselves can turn into shrapnel. Most of these issues have been addressed on newer vehicles.

If you own a vehicle that was manufactured from 2002-2015 and you’re not sure if the recall was already performed, call your local dealership and they’ll tell you. They should be able to take care of it free of charge since it’s technically a manufacturer defect. You can read about all the factory recalls here.

Next, you or your mechanic would scan the vehicle computers via OBDII to retrieve the fault codes stored in the airbag module. The obviously blown airbags are not what they’re scanning for but rather they’re looking for the other components that may have gone bad like clocksprings, impact and passenger seat sensors, etc…Some of the time these sensors don’t go bad but merely need to be re-calibrated.

Once all the occupant-restraining components like airbags, seatbelts, sensors have been replaced after a collision, the final step is to either reset or replace the airbag module. After this, the airbag light should go off and you’re all set.

Airbag Fault

Cost Of Replacing Airbags

The cheapest airbag will most likely always be the driver-side steering wheel airbag. It’s small, fits on a steering wheel, and is easily removable via four screws. Before, carmakers used to make the passenger-side airbag removable, but now when that deploys, chances are you will have to replace the entire dashboard since it’s non-removable from the dash.

Prices largely vary depending on the year make and model. By law, certain states require that you only buy new ones and show proof of purchase when doing an annual inspection so that alone can drive up the cost exponentially.

Seatbelts, side-curtain airbags, door airbags, seat airbags can easily cost hundreds of dollars for each airbag unit. It’s not uncommon to see them cost between $300-$1,500/pc. This isn’t including labor which is an additional cost.

When an entire front dashboard has to be replaced or an entire roof panel must be taken apart just to access the pillar plastic trim to be able to replace the pillar airbags, it’s easy to understand why it would take more than a day’s worth of billable hours to get it fixed.

To diagnose any codes stored on the ‘airbag module,’ I recommend you scan it with an OBDII scan tool capable of doing so. Some of the cheaper scanners won’t even read the airbag codes, but a good one like the Foxwell NT614 will be able to. You can find it on my recommended page here. You’ll save money by knowing what exact parts your car needs without getting charged $125 every time for a diagnostic.

Conclusion

Airbags save lives, no question about it. When working in unison with seatbelts, the chances of survival are much higher. Sure there are manufacturer defects but if that’s the case, your local dealership will replace the components in question free of charge.

Newer cars are integrating more and more airbags in various locations throughout the cabin to ensure maximum safety. The airbag module controls and stores all the data related including speed, braking, and which impact sensors were activated at the moment of collision. It’s similar to a black box on an airplane.

If your airbag light is on, the cost of diagnosing the codes stored in the airbag module can be cut down by owning a scan tool. However, if you live in a state that requires new airbags, there’s not much wiggle in terms of price because you’re no longer able to replace the blown airbags with cheaper good used airbags.

The newest cars on the road have the greatest safety features and improvements. With different kinds of airbags and other safety devices being invented and implemented, it’s a great time to be alive. Who knows what they’ll come up with next. Competition between individual carmakers is fierce. I look forward to seeing what kind of airbags will be created next.

Have you ever chosen a car largely based on safety ratings? If so, what are some of the most important safety features that matter to you?

Sources

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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