Are Airbags Dangerous? (And Can They Kill You?)

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Airbags are designed to stop you from crashing into the steering wheel, dashboard, and other hard parts of your vehicle during a collision. They’re inflatable cushions which help minimize injury in the event of a crash for both driver and passenger.

All new cars have been fitted with airbags since the late nineties, but over the years there have been reports of them being the cause of serious injuries. So are airbags dangerous?

Airbags are dangerous pieces of equipment when they’re defective or used incorrectly. They inflate at speeds of over 200mph, and have been known to cause serious injuries to drivers and passengers. Care should be taken to ensure airbags are always in good working order, and haven’t been recalled by the car manufacturer.

So we know airbags can be dangerous, but how much of a risk is there, and can they kill you?

Do Airbags Protect You in a Crash?

Airbags are very effective at protecting you during a crash, especially when paired with a seatbelt. They reduce the effect of the extreme forces produced by a crash and protect the parts of your body most susceptible to injury.

The head and neck are perhaps the most exposed parts of the body during an accident. Airbags work to curtail the impact on these parts in particular by providing a cushion of air to impact, rather than the steering wheel of the car.

Car airbag being deployed
An airbag being deployed in a car crash

How Strong is an Airbag?

There are some extremely strong forces at work in order for an airbag to protect you. Airbags come out of your steering wheel or dashboard at 120-220mph with a pressure of around 5 psi. 

They’re made of nylon and polyester which is tough but flexible, and cushion your impact in a crash.

For it to deploy correctly, an airbag essentially needs to explode out of your steering wheel. You would not want to be any closer to it exploding than you are when sat in the seat of a car.

You also wouldn’t want to have anything between you and the airbag when it deploys due to the energy involved. A pet sat on your lap during a crash, for example, would cause both you and your pet serious injuries. Items such as cell phones can also be very hazardous.

The cell phone would be blasted into your face by the airbag at extreme speeds. That’s going to cause you one nasty injury.

Airbag demonstration
Airbag demonstration car

Are Airbags Painful?

When an airbag deploys it can be painful for the driver and passenger of the vehicle. The momentum of your body hitting the airbag is enough to cause injuries, but they are likely to be less severe than if you didn’t have it to cushion the blow.

Whilst many airbag injuries have been reported, whether it’s painful for you will depend on the severity and type of crash. 

Airbags can deploy even at low speeds, which means there are lower forces at work and it’s less likely to be painful for you.

The seatbelt injuries you receive are likely to be more painful than any airbag injuries you receive.

Where do Airbags Hit You?

Airbags are designed to hit you in the chest and face to prevent injuries to these sensitive areas. They can also hit your arms depending on where they are at the time of the crash.

Arms and hands often receive airbag injuries

The airbags are placed throughout the vehicle where they will provide the best protection.

Airbags have been designed to ‘hit’ you in a way which limits the force applied to your body during a crash. This is critical for minimizing injuries.

It’s also important that the correct deployment trajectory be achieved so that the airbag can travel through cabin space before contacting whoever may be inside the vehicle.

Side-impact airbags are designed to help protect drivers and passengers in a side-on crash. They are positioned between you and the side of your vehicle when it is struck from the right or left in a collision, which helps prevent injury by limiting your movement against the interior of your car.

Side-impact airbags after a crash
Side-impact airbags after a crash

What Injuries do Airbags Cause?

There have been multiple cases in which airbags have knocked people unconscious, caused internal bleeding or fractured ribs, but most often airbags cause bruising.

The most common injuries caused by airbags are:

  • Burns to the arms and hands
  • Damage to internal organs
  • Concussion
  • Broken fingers, wrists and arms
  • Facial fractures
  • Abrasions to the upper body
  • Spine and neck injuries
  • Broken ribs
  • Eye injuries
  • Ear trauma

Instances of concussion and airbags knocking people unconscious have been reported, usually when the driver is sitting too close to the steering wheel. 

The airbag itself consists of a nylon fabric, so if your face hits it at tremendous speeds it’s possible to cause an injury similar to one you could expect if you were punched in the face.

Crash test
Airbag crash test

Bone fractures, burns and even internal organ damage is also possible thanks to the force of the airbag exploding from the steering wheel or dash, but thankfully more serious injuries are very rare.

Can Airbags Kill You?

An airbag can kill you if it’s defective, if you haven’t been wearing your seatbelt, or even if you’re small and sit close to the wheel when driving. Children are also at risk and child seats should never be used in the front of a car that’s fitted with airbags.

Whilst the overwhelming evidence concludes that airbags save lives, they do still have the potential to kill you.

They’re designed to deploy within a fraction of a second; quicker than the time it takes for a vehicle to crash. Anything propelled towards a person at this speed has the potential to kill.

They are especially dangerous when used incorrectly, for example with a child seat in the front of the car, or when the driver/passenger is not wearing their seatbelt.

There have also been cases of defective airbags that have ended up injuring people when deploying incorrectly, or unexpectedly.

Has Anyone Died From an Airbag?

A small number of people have died from airbags deploying in low-speed crashes, and from defective airbags exploding upon impact. 

Airbags do not kill people very often. In fact, it’s a very rare occurrence.

The most famous case of defective airbags killing people is the Takata airbag case which has resulted in tens of millions of vehicles being recalled on safety grounds.

Stored airbag
Steering wheel cross-section with stored Takata airbag

The defective airbags were fitted to cars built by 19 different manufacturers, and have been responsible for causing at least 26 deaths worldwide.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not recommend driving your vehicle if it has a defective airbag.

Do Airbags Cause More Harm Than Good?

Airbags do far more good than harm. The number of people who have died from injuries caused by airbags is negligible compared to the number of lives that have been saved.

Whilst the number of lives saved by airbags is in the tens of thousands, the number of people killed by airbags over the years is in the hundreds.

Low-speed crashes are the main way that airbags cause additional fatalities that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. 

The likelihood of the occupant suffering serious (or even fatal) injuries increases if they’re not wearing their seatbelt, or if they’re smaller in stature.

Should You Worry About Airbags?

Whilst it is possible for airbags to kill and cause injuries, you’re far more likely to be saved by an airbag than killed by one.

Multiple studies have proven their effectiveness over the last 30 years, and airbag technology continues to improve. Airbags are getting safer, and more lives are being saved.

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Adam Chinn writes about the intersecting worlds of classic cars, driving pleasure, and smart investment strategies. Starting his journey at 26, he’s proven that one doesn’t need to be wealthy to begin investing in classic cars.

Adam’s insights have been recognized on platforms such as MoneyInc, Swagger Magazine, and Top Speed.

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