Ask a driver who survived a head-on collision about airbags and he or she might say they were the greatest lifesaver a helpless driver could ever hope to have. Ask another driver who just paid $3000 in repairs because an airbag deployed in a 25 mph fender bender and he or she might call airbags a financial time bomb.
Both drivers would be right from their specific points of view- airbags can save lives during serious crashes, but they can also cause more damage than the wreck itself during minor incidents. Some drivers have even opted to have their airbags disabled, especially on the passenger side of their vehicles. The impact of an inflating airbag can cause serious injuries to younger passengers.
So what should you do if your airbag system deploys after a minor fender bender or major accident? It may seem like a million things all at once, but you’ll need to prioritize your needs as best you can under the circumstances.
First, consider what happens before and during airbag deployment. The airbags themselves are stored compactly in the driver’s steering wheel and the passenger side dashboard. You should see the designation SRS imprinted somewhere. This stands for ‘Secondary Restraint System’, the industry’s term for airbags.
These bags are made of a strong but lightweight mesh material. They are packed with a powdery substance which allows the bags to deploy quickly without much resistance. There is also a cartridge that will explode when triggered, causing the bags to fill with gas and burst through the vinyl coverings. Sensors placed near the front bumpers are set to react whenever the bumper receives a certain level of compression, generally from a front collision.
Different cars have different sensitivities, but in general, an airbag should not deploy during a low-speed encounter with a shopping cart or a minor bump with another car. Any impact over 25 mph or so, however, may be enough to trigger a swift reaction. The sensors send an electronic signal to the gas cartridge, which behaves much like an empty shotgun shell.
The explosion fills the bags with gas instantly. The bags expand and burst through the steering wheel and dashboard, hopefully in time to prevent the driver from striking the steering wheel or the windshield. Seconds later, the bags deflate on their own, often leaving an acrid smell and dust in the air.
Now that your airbags have deployed, here’s what to expect:
1. Take inventory of the immediate damages to you, your passengers, and the vehicle. Is everyone conscious and breathing? Did anything penetrate the passenger compartment? Is your engine still running? If it is, turn it off immediately.
Unfasten your seatbelt and push the airbags out of your way. If you’re seriously injured and there is no fire or other immediate danger, remain in the car until help arrives. If you can get out of the car, do it. Help your other passengers out as well, then check on the welfare of the other driver(s) involved.
Do not discuss specific details of the accident, but do make sure the injured are being treated. Wait for the police officer responsible for working the accident to arrive and follow his requests to the letter. He’ll need to know if your airbags deployed.
2. At some point you may be able to return to the vehicle. Expect a fair amount of smoke and powder to remain in the passenger compartment. Retrieve any essential items from the car before the tow truck arrives. At this point, you may want to check yourself for injuries.
The seat belt may have bruised your sternum and abdomen, and the airbag may cause minor to moderate abrasions across your face and chest. You may have to be examined and treated at an emergency room, or you may find relief with topical disinfectants and over-the-counter pain relievers.
3. After the accident has been reported to your insurance company, they will want to evaluate the damage to your vehicle. This is where you may become concerned about airbag damage. Even if the main impact was limited to your front end, the airbags themselves can cause some additional damage.
The bags can inflate with such force that the windshield will crack. The dashboard itself will most likely be seriously damaged, along with some of the electronics behind it. Besides the damage, reinstalling airbags to the satisfaction of insurance companies can easily cost $1500 or more per bag, and most cars have at least two bags. A car that may have been fixable could become a total loss because of the airbag deployment.
4. If your car is fixable, do not assume you can drive without airbags. Some drivers have been known to drive with deployed airbags instead of paying for proper reinstallment. This is a very dangerous practice. Getting airbags replaced properly can be an expensive proposition, but compromising your safety could prove to be even more expensive.
If you are not comfortable with airbags, you can request that they be disabled at the repair shop, but you’ll need to have the cosmetic damage to your steering wheel and dashboard fixed soon. Disabling a passenger-side airbag is not illegal, and is a matter for serious consideration by parents of older children and young teens.
Airbags do save lives, but smaller bodies may receive too much impact during deployment. Shoulder and lap restraints may be enough protection for older children, while younger passengers may want to sit in the back as a rule.