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Air Bags – What’s the Harm?

UAB recently helped a client involved in a head-on collision. The car's airbag had been deployed, causing the driver some injury but probably saving her life. The client looked like she had been beaten; her face was bruised from chin to forehead and most of the skin was scraped off the inside of her forearms. But the client was saved by those same airbags and lived to tell about it!

Do Airbags Hurt?

Airbags are designed to deploy only when needed, to prevent serious injury. In order to be effective, they must deploy early in a crash; typically within the first 20 - 50 milliseconds (0.02 - 0.05 seconds) after impact.  The airbag is not a soft, billowy pillow; it explodes out of the dashboard at up to 200 miles per hour - faster than the blink of an eye. The force of a deployed airbag can harm those too close to it.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Family...

Proper use of a seat belt lessens the risk of injury from a deploying airbag.  The seat belt will keep you in the correct position and give the airbag room to expand.  Remember, the airbag is only a supplemental restraining device. The primary restraint is still the seat belt.

Researchers have determined that the risk zone for driver airbags is the first 2 to 3 inches of inflation. Therefore, you should seat yourself 10 inches from your steering wheel to give the airbag room to do its job. The 10 inches should be measured from the center of the steering wheel to your breastbone. If you currently sit less than 10 inches away, you can adjust your driving position in the following ways:

  • Move your seat back as far as possible, while still reaching the pedals comfortably.
  • Slightly recline the back of your seat. If reclining the seat makes it hard to see the road, you should raise yourself up by using a car seat cushion.
  • Tilt your steering wheel downward, if possible, pointing the airbag toward your chest and not your head or neck.

Rules for Children:

Children 12 and under should ride buckled up in a properly installed, age-appropriate car seat in the rear seat of the car. An airbag can seriously injure or even kill an unbuckled child who is sitting too close to it. Experts agree that the following rules should apply:

  • Infants in rear-facing child seats (under one year old and weighing less than 20 pounds) should never ride in the front seat of a car that has a passenger-side airbag.

The Take Away:

Use your seat belts!  Frontal airbags are designed to work with lap/shoulder belts to protect heads and chests from hitting the steering wheel, instrument panel or windshield. Drivers striking these surfaces hard, often sustain serious or fatal injuries.  And, to lessen the injury from a deployed airbag, sit 10 inches from the steering wheel.


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