Safety has always been at the forefront of vehicle manufacturers’ priorities. Nowadays, we’re seeing plenty of new safety features that use Artificial Intelligence to significantly reduce the risk of a collision.
Despite this, airbags remain one of the staples of car safety, working alongside seatbelts to protect both the driver and any passengers should an incident occur.
A brief history of the airbag
In 1952, American engineer John W. Hetrick initially came up with the concept of the airbag following a trip to the countryside outside Pennsylvania with his family, where a large boulder appeared on the road in front of them and they crashed into a ditch.
The following year, Mr Hetrick was granted his patent for a ‘safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles’.
The airbag wasn’t seen in production models until the early 1970s, when the Oldsmobile Toronado first offered front airbags. The following year Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac all offered dual airbags as an option.
Almost two decades later, the technology became commonplace in 1990 when Ford standardised airbags in all of its production vehicles. This was also the year that the first recorded incident of two cars, both equipped with airbags, were involved in a head-on collision.
Modern day airbags
On average, modern cars can contain seven airbags but it’s becoming more common to see 10 or more in some of the latest vehicle releases. This number is only set to increase as safety tests around the world become more stringent.
Swedish company Autoliv specialise in car safety technology and have even developed an airbag which fits in your seatbelt and is designed to reduce the amount of injuries to the ribs and chest. Nowadays, Airbags are also found built into seatbelts.
The next generation
With the potential for multiple airbags fitted to vehicles it’s more important than ever to ensure child seats and restraints are installed in appropriate locations and in the correct manner. Especially when the front seats are concerned, the front seat should not be used unless absolutely necessary.
A rear facing child seat should never be placed in the front seat especially one fitted with an airbag. www.childrestraints.co.nz provides more helpful information.
How they work
When a car's intelligence system senses a dramatic reduction in speed, the airbag is activated. There are at least two sensors (arming and impact) that both need to sense enough of an impact in order to deploy the airbags.
Gas held in canisters inflates the bags to varying degrees depending on where they are in the car. For front airbags, this inflation takes place within 8-40 milliseconds. For side impact they need to inflate in under 15 milliseconds. You can’t even blink that fast!
Takata’s unprecedented recall
You may have read in the news about Takata, a Japanese airbag manufacturer that’s at the centre of the biggest automobile recall in New Zealand history and one of the largest global vehicle recalls of all time.
In April 2018, Consumer Affairs Minister, Kris Faafoi, announced the compulsory recall of over 50,000 vehicles fitted with the company’s Alpha-type airbag. Subsequent updates from manufacturers have raised that number to over 82,000.
Takata’s Alpha-type airbags have been known to malfunction in a crash and explode; sending fragments at vehicle occupants and causing serious injury – or, in cases overseas, death.
The aim is to have all affected vehicles recalled by the end of 2019, but currently around 24% of the vehicles in question are still driving around on our roads. While good progress has been made, typically recall rates slow over time and it can be difficult to achieve the last few percent.
If your vehicle is affected and you choose to ignore the recall, the NZTA are at some point highly likely to require WoF inspectors to fail your vehicle if Alpha airbags have not been replaced. It’s illegal to drive without a valid WoF.
An additional 185,000 vehicles in New Zealand still contain non-Alpha airbags - these are subject to a voluntary recall.
The New Zealand Automobile Association urges you to visit rightcar.govt.nz to find out if your car is affected.