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There in a Flash: Air Bag Safety  
They may be "out of sight" and "out of mind," but air bags provide an important level of safety for your family while driving.


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Air Bag Safety
Air bags provide an important level of safety for your family while driving.

Gerber Life Family Times Archive

ImageDriving. It is one of those commonplace, habitual things we seem to do each and every day of our adult lives. We get in our cars and head off down the nation's highways running errands, commuting to work, and transporting the kids to their various activities. Most of our automobile trips are accomplished without incident—we reach our destination and arrive back home safe and sound. But occasionally, fate steps in and—in the blink of an eye—a quick trip to the supermarket or some other trip results in an automobile accident. Fortunately over the past two decades, advancements in passenger restraint systems and increased government safety standards have combined with public service campaigns and state laws requiring drivers and passengers to "buckle up," and greatly reduced the number of injuries and deaths caused by automobile accidents.

One of the safety features found on any car produced since 1998 (when they became mandatory in all cars) is the air bag. Most of us will never see what the air bag in our car looks like and, if you are lucky, it will be the one feature of your car that never gets used. An observant eye may notice the letters "SRS" (Supplemental Restraint System) as the only indication that an airbag is sitting there, waiting patiently, until needed. Patents for the basic concept of an airbag date back to the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn't until 1973 that the first car intended for sale to the public was produced with a passenger side air bag, which was joined by a driver side air bag option in 1975. It took until 1988 for one of the "Big Three" automakers to offer an air bag restraint system as standard equipment on a passenger car. Since 1998, air bags have been mandatory in all cars. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), air bags have helped reduce deaths in frontal crashes by about 30% for drivers and by 27% for passengers.

NHTSA describes a supplemental restraint system as a combination of an air bag module (consisting of an air bag and its inflators) and an electronic control unit (ECU) which acts as the brain of the air bag system—receiving signals from various sensors in the car and deciding if and when each air bag should be deployed. The ECU is usually located in the center of a vehicle where it can be well protected. In newer, advanced air bag systems the ECU may also receive input from sensors that detect the occupant's weight, seating position, seat position, and seat belt use so the system can determine the force with which the air bags should deploy. Crash sensors measure how quickly a vehicle slows down in a frontal crash or the level or impact in a side impact crash, and send the information to the ECU. Crash sensors can be located in the front of the vehicle near the engine or in the passenger compartment (for information on frontal crashes) or in the ECU, door, doorsill, or pillar between the front and rear doors (for information on side impacts).

During moderate to severe frontal crashes, the front air bags inflate to prevent occupants from hitting the interior of the vehicle. The entire process of air bag inflation and deflation happens in less than a second. The air bag automatically deflates as the gas escapes through vents in the fabric of the air bag. A powdery starch or talcum substance is used to lubricate the bag and may contain small amounts of sodium hydroxide that can possibly cause some temporary minor irritation to the eyes and/or throat. Other injuries might include abrasions from contact with the fabric of the bag. NHTSA recommends consulting with your owner's manual to determine the particular details associated with the air bag system in your car.

NHTSA also notes the following tips and warnings regarding air bag systems:

  • Front air bags do not eliminate the need for using safety belts.
  • Severe panic braking alone cannot cause sufficient force to cause an air bag to deploy.
  • Front air bags do not typically offer protection in rollovers, rear-end, or side-impact crashes.
  • Air bags cannot smother you and do not restrict your movement following a crash.
  • Air bags are a single-use safety restraint and cannot be reused.
  • If your air bag has deployed, do not drive the vehicle until the air bag has been replaced by an authorized repair center.
  • For properly restrained occupants, most air bag injuries are minor cuts, bruises, and abrasions, which are far less serious than the head trauma injuries that an air bag can prevent.

For an air bag to be safely and effectively used, occupants of the vehicle must follow specific guidelines. NHTSA advises the following:

  • All occupants should be properly restrained with either a safety belt or proper child safety restraint, whether or not the vehicle has air bags.
  • Unrestrained or improperly restrained occupants will move forward during the hard braking before a crash. In addition to striking the interior of the vehicle, these occupants are very likely to be on top of the air bag as it begins to inflate.
  • Serious or even fatal air bag-related injuries can occur if occupants are not properly restrained and in a proper seating position.
  • As a driver, you should maintain at least 10 inches between your breastbone and the center of the steering wheel to maintain a proper seating position. Move your seat to the rear as far as you can while still being able to still reach the pedals comfortably and slightly recline the seatback.

When it comes to children, The American Academy of Pediatricians states that, "An air bag can save your life. However, air bags and young children do not mix." For that reason, the AAP and NHTSA state the following:

  • Never put an infant in the front seat of a car, truck, sport utility vehicle, or van with an air bag.
  • Infants must always ride in rear-facing car safety seats in the back seat until they are at least 20 pounds and at least one year of age. The AAP recommends that infants ride rear-facing until they reach the maximum weight and height allowed by the manufacturer of the car safety seat.
  • The safest place for all infants and children younger than 13 years to ride is in the back seat.
  • Seat belts must be worn correctly at all times by all passengers who have outgrown booster seats.Fit shoulder lap belts properly to provide the best protection.
  • Check your vehicle's owner's manual for additional information regarding children and side air bags.
  • Vehicles without rear seats or with small rear seats (pickups and sports cars) may have a passenger air bag on-off switch as standard equipment. The switch in the "off" position disables the front passenger air bag to transport a child age 12 or under in the right front seating position.

Pregnant women compose another group that is advised to follow specific guidelines when riding in a vehicle equipped with air bags. NHTSA notes that the combination of safety belts and air bags offers the best level of protection for pregnant women as long as they follow the same advice given for other adults (i.e., ensure they are properly belted, maintain a proper seating position, and move the seat as far back as possible). NHTSA further states that the lap belt should be positioned low on the abdomen, below the fetus, with the shoulder belt worn normally. When a crash occurs, the fetus can be injured by striking the lower rim of the steering wheel or from crash forces concentrated in the area where a seat belt crosses the mother's abdomen. The seat belt will keep a pregnant woman as far as possible from the steering wheel and the air bag will help spread out the crash forces that would otherwise be concentrated by the seat belt. NHTSA adds that women late in pregnancy may not be able to get their abdomens away from the steering wheel. If the vehicle has a tilt steering wheel, pregnant women should make sure the steering wheel is tilted toward the breastbone, not the abdomen or the head.

As much time as we spend in our cars transporting our family members, it's good to know that there's another layer of safety, in the form of an air bag system, waiting patiently to spring into action should an unfortunate crash happen. By making certain you and your family members follow the recommended seating guidelines, you can rest assured that should your air bags be needed, they will provide a cushion of safety.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—
Insurance Information Institute—
American Academy of Pediatricians—

Articles are provided for the general interest of our readers. Gerber Life Insurance is not responsible for any content and recommends that you consult the appropriate professional with any questions or concerns you may have concerning any financial or health related issues.

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