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