Car safety airbags have a true-story origin that inspired the airbag design. In 1952, former industrial engineering technician John W. Hetrick sketched the original airbag after he ran into a ditch while avoiding a large rock in the road. Hetrick designed an inflatable "safety cushion" to minimise injuries caused by frontal crashes. Major automakers seized upon the airbag concept in the late 1950s, and have since consistently refined and upgraded the airbag concept.
All cars, vans and light trucks sold in the U.S. must have a minimum level of airbag protection. In 2011, these passenger vehicles are required to have driver and passenger front seat airbags. Upscale vehicles, such as luxury sedans and high-end sport-utility vehicles, feature airbags in additional locations. These vehicles also feature rollover airbags that provide protection during dangerous rollover crashes.
Airbag deployments have helped thousands of drivers and passengers survive frontal vehicle collisions. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration cites January 2009 estimates showing over 28,000 frontal crash victims who survived because of airbag deployment. These survivors comprised 82 per cent drivers and 18 per cent front-seat passengers. Head-protecting side airbags decrease a car driver's death risk by 37 per cent in driver-side crashes. These head-protecting side airbags reduce SUV drivers' death risk by 52 per cent in driver-side accidents. Side airbags protecting only the torso decrease death risk by 26 per cent for car drivers and 30 per cent for SUV drivers.
Airbag Injury Prevention
Airbags minimise potential injuries from vehicle collisions, but these supplemental restraint systems come with their own risks. An airbag flies out of the dashboard at up to 200mph, meaning a driver or passenger too close to the dashboard can be injured. Help protect yourself by using a lap and shoulder seat belt that restrains you within your seat. Sit as far back from the dashboard as possible, but do not compromise your ability to reach the steering wheel and foot pedals, if you are the driver.
Children can be seriously injured or killed by an air bag deployment. Buckle an infant or child into an approved safety seat; secure the safety seat into the rear seat if at all possible. Do not place infants into rear-facing child safety seats in the front passenger seat; babies can suffer catastrophic injuries or death from the airbag's violent deployment. Secure a 1-year-or-older child into the proper restraint for his size and age, and move his front passenger seat as far back as you can.
Future Airbag Safety Standards
Future NHTSA regulations will require automakers to increase protection provided by side airbags. The 2011 rules require stronger and larger side airbags, plus better side-curtain airbags to help protect unbelted vehicle occupants. Regulations apply to vehicles of 4536kg. or less, and are designed to reduce vehicle occupant ejections in rollover crashes. Automakers must begin the phase-in process in 2013, and all vehicles must comply with these airbag rules by 2018.
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- Consumer Affairs.com; A Short History of the Airbag; Lisa Wade McCormick; September 2006
- Cars Direct: Cars Direct.com Safety Guide
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; Questions and Answers; Are Airbags Effective?; November 2010
- The Police Notebook; University of Oklahoma Police Department; Air Bag Safety
- "The Detroit News"; New Airbag Rules Designed to Reduce Passenger Ejections; January 2011