The necessary violence of life-saving airbags

First-person account describes it as “like a bomb” going off, but these safety devices are proven to save lives – with caveats

Originally published July 17, 2017

It was 5 p.m. on a perfect summer evening. Melissa Moore, 54, was driving her 2017 Subaru Forester on the rural highway just outside Whitehall, Michigan, the town where she lives. She admits the new car purchase had been an exciting step up from years of utilitarian minivans; the Bluetooth, the touchscreens, the newfound luxury, all had made her a little lax on even asking questions about the safety features of the vehicle.

“I knew Subaru had a great reputation,” she admits. “But it still wasn’t like me to not check out safety options.” A deer helped her check most of them out, all at once. A seatbelt and a lot of airbags saved her from certain injury, if not worse.

Most of us think we’ll have time to avoid a deer strike. With your vision up in areas you know deer to frequent (there were four collisions with deer on that day alone where Melissa met hers), the blunt truth is that they often come out of nowhere, and directly into your vehicle. You don’t have any braking distance.

“It was maybe five feet away from me; it happened so fast, it came from the passenger side of the car,” says Moore. “All I could think later was how grateful I was that my 14-year-old daughter wasn’t sitting there. She’s often with me.”

melissa-subaru-3

The speed limit in the area is 55 mph (about 88 km/h), the speed she was maintaining. If you factor in driver reaction time, you need about 300 feet (91 metres) to stop a vehicle with good brakes on dry pavement. There was zero chance that deer wasn’t going to land in that Subaru. In fact, it carried on across the road and hit another vehicle, which in turn hit the ditch and was totalled.

Responders figure Melissa managed to hit the brakes and began to steer. Damage to the car is on the front and down the driver’s side. All the airbags in the Forester were deployed, except the passenger dash and the passenger seat. Melissa didn’t even realize her seat had an airbag in it until her son pointed it out. All the curtain bags activated. For Melissa, “everything just exploded. The seatbelt had me pinned in place and all I could smell was the propellant chemical. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It happened so fast.”

She had a badly bruised shin and a bruised and strained chest wall, where the seatbelt and airbag did their jobs.

Despite the recent Takata airbag scandal, in the U.S. alone, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that between 1978 and 2012, 39,976 lives have been saved by airbags in that country; here in our own country, Transport Canada’s statistics say 300 lives were saved between 1990 and 200o. Airbags were deemed mandatory for all cars and light trucks sold after September 1, 1998.

As consumers, we take airbags for granted, even at the most entry level of cars. Manufacturers are increasingly providing better and better airbag systems throughout their vehicles. But as consumers, we need to remember that safety systems only work when used as they’re designed. Movies and ads would have you believe that an airbag goes off in slow motion, or resembles nothing so much as a large puffy marshmallow. The truth couldn’t be more different: that plastic bag launches like a rocket, at 100 to 300 km/h depending on their location. It deflates instantly.

Crucial to an airbag adequately protecting you is the proper use of your seatbelt, as well as your seating position. There should be a 25 centimetre distance between your chest and the airbag – for the driver, it’s in the steering wheel, for passenger, it’s mounted in the dash. The seatbelt is built to have enough slack in it to receive the initial thrust of the collision before pulling you back into the seat as the airbag cushions you and keeps you in place. Not using a seatbelt means taking the full force of that airbag and will cause serious injury. In fact, Transport Canada reports that eight people have been killed by airbags up to 2001 – and the common thread between them all was that the victims sat too close to the airbag when it deployed.

Both restraint systems are also meant to be used with the seat in the proper position. Reclining will compromise that. A passenger putting his or her feet on the dash risks the force of the airbag blowing up directly under their legs. Don’t put your feet on the dash. Ever.

What will make my airbags deploy?

Generally, airbags will deploy if you hit a “solid, fixed barrier” from 13 to 22 km/h. Some advanced systems will sense a child or other small person in the passenger seat who could be injured by the airbag, and automatically turn it off. Those under 12 should still be travelling in the rear seat.

Melissa Moore could still taste the chemical residue in her throat at the hospital after the crash. While doctors continued to make sure some existing conditions hadn’t been exacerbated – she has some osteoarthritis and lower back issues – she remained shocked that the violence that took place outside the car produced far less damage than what happened inside. “The outside of the car doesn’t even look that bad,” she mused. “Inside was like a bomb went off.”

Airbags. The bombs that save lives.

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2 responses to The necessary violence of life-saving airbags

  1. Pat says:

    I liken it more to having someone fire a starters pistol in your ear, without the ready, set, go!
    Hands at 4 and 8 or you’ll break your wrists at 10 and 2.
    And kids, keep you damned feet off the dash!!

  2. Sandy says:

    My son hit a car this weekend. Thought they were going through the light and they didn’t.
    The front end of our car is destroyed, the bumper of theirs looks like nothing happened.
    Strangest thing though was that our airbags did not deploy.
    Still don’t think they are going to fix the car, which is a killer for a boy who will now have to learn to use the bus because the small amount of money that insurance might give us for it, certainly isn’t going to replace it.

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