Airbags: Inflating Your Safety Since 1974

I never thought much about airbags in the past; they were a feature mentioned to me by car salesmen when I was considering a purchase, but I (luckily) never had to experience an airbag firsthand. Recently, I was watching the news and saw the aftermath of what looked like a violent car accident: There was twisted metal, broken glass and the telltale fabric of deployed airbags.

I remember thinking to myself, “No one could have survived that.” But I was wrong, fortunately — the reporter said there were injuries, but no fatalities. I’m not sure whether the airbags in that case were credited with saving the drivers from more serious injury, but it did make me think: As a driver and a car owner, what should I know about airbags? Could they help prevent injury in a crash? Are there different kinds of airbags?

So, I did a little research, and I found out that airbags have come a long way since they were introduced. The first airbag patents were issued in the 1950s, but it took years of advocacy by groups including Allstate Insurance before they first appeared in production vehicles in 1974, when General Motors offered optional driver’s-side airbags on some models, according to Tech-Cor ResearchIn 1980, Mercedes-Benz became the first manufacturer to begin including driver’s-side airbags as standard equipment. The federal government began requiring driver and front-passenger airbags on all cars sold in the U.S. in 1998, with light trucks following suit a year later.

Since then, automakers have developed more complex airbag systems to help keep people safe if a crash should occur. For example, the current Toyota Camry comes with 10 airbags to help ward off crash-related injuries. But how do they all work? Here’s a rundown of the different types of airbags that might be in your car, and how they can help keep you safe.

Frontal Airbags

Front airbags, located in the steering wheel and front dash to provide protection in a front-end crash, were the first types of airbags to become popular, and they’ve evolved over time. In 1998, depowered airbags, which deploy with less force in order to help reduce the chance of injury caused by the airbag itself, started making their way into vehicles.

Another step in frontal airbags’ evolution was the dual-stage airbag, which inflates at different rates, depending on how serious the accident is. And then, in 2006, the federal government required that new cars come with an advanced frontal airbag system, which uses sensors to analyze variables like passenger size, seating position and the severity of the crash, as well as whether or not a seat belt is being used to help determine how much power will be used to inflate the frontal airbags or whether to deploy them at all.

Side-Impact Airbags

Just like their name indicates, these airbags are designed to protect you if the car gets hit on the driver or passenger side. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recognizes three specific types of side-impact airbags (SABs), which offer different types of protection:

  1. Chest (or torso) SABs: Typically mounted in the side of the seat or in the door, these airbags are designed to reduce the risk of chest injuries in a crash.
  2. Head SABs: You’ll find these in the roof rail above the side windows of your car. They help lessen the risk of head injuries in a side-impact crash, and may also help keep you in the car in the event of a rollover. Head SABs include side-curtain airbags, which usually expand to protect both rows of occupants in a side-impact crash.
  3. Head/Chest Combination SABs: Combination SABs are larger than chest SABs, and are designed to help protect an adult passenger’s head and chest. You’ll generally find them in the side of the seat.

Knee Airbags

Driver’s knee airbags are located under the steering column, and are designed to activate with the front airbags in a crash. Knee airbags cushion the driver’s legs on impact, and they also help prevent the driver from sliding under the dash during a collision. Knee airbags have just been introduced within the past few years, but they’re already offered as standard equipment on some cars.

There’s no question that airbags have helped keep motorists safe. Nearly 26,000 lives were saved by frontal airbags between 1987 and 2008, and automakers strive to engineer vehicles that hold up better in crash tests. Do you know how many airbags are in your car? If not, what automotive safety features are most important to you?