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Airbags Frequently Asked Questions

How do airbags work?
Airbags work by preventing your upper body from striking the steering wheel, dashboard and windshield in a head-on collision. Airbags will deploy in most frontal collisions, however front airbags will most likely not deploy in side-collisions. Airbags will NOT deploy in most side-collisions, but side airbags are not as common as front airbags. A sensor is activated when the car strikes a solid object. This sensor sends an electric current, initiating a chemical release of non-toxic nitrogen gas that causes the airbag to inflate. The deployment is instantaneous and the airbag will deflate immediately, preventing the risk of suffocation.
I am able to adjust the position of my steering wheel. Which position is most likely to minimize injury but provide the greatest protection from an airbag?
Tilt the steering wheel toward your breastbone. Do not tilt it toward your abdomen or toward your head and neck. Try to adjust your seat at least 10 inches away from the center of the steering wheel.
Why is it so important not to have rear-facing child safety seats in the front seat?
The force of nearly 3,000 pounds of pressure from a crash would thrust the child forward, crushing it between the safety seat and the back of the car seat. Never place a rear-facing child safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle equipped with a passenger-front airbag.
I know that all children under age 12 should ride in the back seat, especially if the car is equipped with airbags. What about the elderly; are they safe with airbags?
The elderly, like all other passengers and drivers, should be properly restrained with the seat as far back as possible and the individual's back firmly supported. All occupants should also keep arms and feet away from where the airbags will deploy.
What is all this I hear about on-off switches for airbags?
On-off switches should be considered only rarely. However, some circumstances warrant deactivating the airbag. For example, deactivating the airbag would be warranted when:
  • a child seat can only be placed in the front seat, (e.g., a two-seater car or truck);
  • a medical or other condition outweighs the advantages of airbags, and
  • when the driver is unable to sit at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel.
To have an on-off switch installed, you must be able to prove that one of the above conditions applies to you. Remember, if the conditions change, you should switch the airbag on for maximum safety.
How can I get an on-off switch?
To be eligible, you must meet any one of the three requirements listed above. Applications are available by contacting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's hotline at 1-800-424-9393.
I have heard that some airbags smoke when they inflate. Is this a fire hazard?
Cornstarch or powder is packed inside the airbags to lubricate them and ensure proper inflation. The "smoke" is actually the cornstarch or powder and poses no fire hazard.