Drivers Airbags

Most new cars have a front airbag for the driver as standard equipment. Airbags are sometimes referred to as 'Supplementary Restraint Systems' (SRS) as they are designed to enhance the protection offered by seat belts.  Front airbags operate in a severe frontal collision. Crash sensors detect the sudden reduction in speed and send a signal to the airbag inflator which fills the bag with a gas. Full inflation occurs faster than the blink of an eye. The bag begins to deflate instantly, in a controlled way, to cushion the impact.

Although airbags are relatively new in Europe, studies are showing that in accidents there is a reduction in the frequency of severe head injuries experienced by drivers in cars equipped with airbags. In order to do their job properly in a severe front impact, airbags inflate very quickly with a considerable amount of force. This can sometimes cause injuries such as abrasions and slight burns, but these are minor compared with the serious injuries which could have occurred if the airbag had not been present. However, serious or fatal injuries can be caused if an occupant is too close to an airbag when it inflates.

Correct driving position

Whether or not an airbag is fitted, drivers should sit as far back as reasonably possible from the steering wheel. Given the speed and force with which an airbag inflates, it is vitally important that you always wear your seatbelt and that you do not sit too close to the steering wheel. For example, advice in the US and Canada, where they have had experience of airbags for many years, is that the distance between the centre of the steering wheel to your breastbone should be at least 10 inches (25 cm); in their view this provides a clear margin of safety. However, since airbag systems differ from car to car, you should always check and follow specific advice from your vehicle manufacturer.

The key points are:

Always wear your seatbelt and position yourself as far away from the steering wheel as possible, but make sure you can maintain safe control of the vehicle.

If you must have your seat pushed forward in order to reach the pedals, slightly reclining the back of your seat may help move you back sufficiently from the steering wheel. If your steering wheel is adjustable, tilt it downwards so that the airbag points towards your chest rather than your head, but make sure you can see the instruments clearly.

If you find you still have to sit too near the steering wheel in order to drive properly then you should contact the vehicle manufacturer's authorised representative for advice. You should explain how far you can sit from the wheel and ask whether they consider this would put you at risk of serious injury from the airbag. If they think you are too close to the airbag they may be able offer practical assistance or advice to help you sit further back. If this is not possible, and the manufacturer considers that because of your proximity to the steering wheel you would be at appreciable risk from the inflating airbag, they may offer to disconnect it or install a cut-off switch.

Although there is no specific legal requirement for cars on the road to have an airbag, disconnection would be very much a last resort, since the airbag forms part of an overall safety package specifically designed for the particular vehicle. Therefore manufacturers do not generally recommend disconnecting airbags, although it may be appropriate in some exceptional circumstances.

In these cases it would be reasonable for a manufacturer to impose certain conditions before disconnecting an airbag, such as requiring replacement of the steering wheel and possibly the seatbelt since these components may have been specifically designed and approved for use with an airbag. They may also require you to accept the responsibility for having the airbag disconnected and for any effect the disconnection may have on any other driver of the car. Of course, the airbag should be reconnected before the car is eventually sold. Finally, your insurance company should be consulted and kept informed.

Passengers' Airbags

Many new cars are now available with front passenger airbags. There is currently too little data to draw firm conclusions, but as passengers are at less risk of hitting the dashboard, the benefits of passengers' airbags may be more limited.

The key points are:

Always wear a seatbelt and never fit a rear facing child restraint in a passenger seat protected by an airbag, because the child seat will be too close to the rapidly-inflating airbag and the child is likely to be seriously injured or killed by it.

Sit upright and as far back as possible from the dashboard. Never put your feet on the dashboard and never attach anything to the dashboard over or near the airbag. Generally, children are safer restrained in the rear seats. In deciding where children should travel in your car you should always follow the vehicle and child restraint manufacturer's advice. If you do carry children facing forward in the front seat, they should always be properly restrained and the seat should be latched as far back as possible. If you have any queries about the front passenger airbag you should contact the vehicle manufacturer's authorised representative.

Side Airbags

Side airbags have also started to appear in cars recently. These work in a similar manner to front airbags, but are located either in the side structure of the car or in the seats. As their name suggests, they are designed to inflate and protect the occupants in a side impact.

The key points are:

Sit properly in the seat. Do not lean close to, or against, the door. If the side airbag is located in the seat, either do not fit seat covers at all or fit only specially designed seat covers recommended for the vehicle. There are already a wide variety of side airbags being fitted, including side airbag 'curtains', and if you have any specific queries about the side airbags in your car you should contact the vehicle manufacturer's authorised representative.

Replacement Airbags

If the airbag module in your car or any other part of the airbag system requires replacement, ensure only those parts approved by the manufacturer for use with your vehicle are fitted. Also make sure that they are fitted in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. Never have second-hand airbag components fitted as they may not function in accordance with the manufacturer's original specification and therefore offer reduced levels of protection, or even present a danger to the vehicle occupant. The only exception to this is where the vehicle manufacturer has specifically designed the vehicle to work with a special child restraint which automatically disconnects the airbag on that vehicle. This will be stated in the driver's handbook.

Drivers Air Bags - Tips and Advice RoadDriver Article No 29 - 2010

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