They're not just hot air.
The only thing between you and your steering wheel when you crash is the airbag. This technology was first introduced in the USA in the mid-70s, and has now become a requirement as statistics have shown that front airbags reduce the likelihood of dying in a frontal crash by around 30%. Airbags form a crucial part of how vehicle safety is measured - for a detailed discussion on this, read our explanation on safety ratings here.
From no airbags to just one or two over the last few decades, many newer model cars have bunches: a Land Rover Discovery has up to eight, and a Toyota Camry can have as many as ten. Dual front airbags are compulsory in the US for all car types - sedans, hybrid cars, crossovers, trucks, and EVs, and there's more to it than simply a cushion deployed to protect your head in a collision.
First, what exactly are airbags? They're air cushions inflated by a fast-acting inflator in fractions of a second to shield you from your car's interior hardpoints, like the dashboard, steering wheel, windscreen, and roof pillars, triggered at the moment of impact in an accident. It inflates with such speed that it's already fully inflated when your body starts to move.
If you're wondering where your airbags are located, they're not just in the steering wheel. They are embedded throughout the vehicle's interior padding with perforated seams allowing them to deploy. Airbags in vehicles became commonplace in cars in the late 80s and early 90s. Chrysler would become the first vehicle manufacturer to offer airbags for cars as standard on some of its models, since around 1988. Mercedes-Benz already offered an airbag as an option in the 1981 S-Class.
Considering what a common and essential safety feature they are, not many of us actually know how the airbags in our cars work. Upon receiving feedback from any of a plethora of sensors, a processing unit decides which airbags in the car to deploy in a crash. The frontal airbags can be deployed with varying severity, depending on crash intensity. Once the threshold is exceeded, the airbags are triggered by an electrical pulse igniting a gas. This produces enough nitrogen gas to fully inflate the airbag in less than 30 milliseconds. Some airbags deploy only if the weight of a passenger is detected in the relevant seat, meaning an airbag won't deploy if there is no passenger to protect.
The distribution of airbags differs from car to car, but these are the most common types of airbags and the typical car-airbag locations:
As critical safety devices, there are certainly many advantages to having airbags, but you have to accept the bad with the good.
Most front passenger airbags can be deactivated to allow fitment of a rear-facing child seat. Your user's manual should detail how to disable airbags, but it usually involves inserting the key into a keyhole on the side of the dashboard, accessed with the passenger door open. There is a permanent airbag-light warning illuminated on the dashboard to warn that the airbag has been deactivated. Instructions can also usually be found on the passenger sun visor and/or the side of the dashboard. It is advised to keep your airbag system enabled, and rather place any child seats in the back of the vehicle.
Airbags are significant automotive safety advances, alongside seat belts, ABS, and stability control. They save countless lives every year, and frontal airbags are required by law to pass certain safety standards. While there are always some potential risks, the benefits by far outweigh them. Ensure you familiarize yourself with how airbags work, why they should never be disabled, and the rating your car is given for safety by local authorities.
Airbags save lives, but there is a chance of airbag injuries in certain cases, especially with unrestrained occupants. Additionally, abrasions, contusions, burns and sprains are common, too, due to the force of the impact; however, these minor injuries are still preferable to the maiming or fatal injuries you could suffer without airbags.
US laws require that every new car and truck sold in the USA must have at least two front-impact airbags. This has been a legal requirement since 1998. Each make and model will have its own additional airbag protection system, however.
Airbag replacement is usually handled by your insurance. The price of driver's airbag modules can be between $200 and $700 without labor - this is without taking the cost of bodywork/interior repairs into account, too. Replacing multiple airbags can cost thousands of dollars and must be done by a specialist.
It stands for 'supplemental restraint system', indicating that the airbags form part of a more comprehensive safety suite, with the primary restraint system being the seatbelt.