Richard Green, national director of the South African Motor Body Repair Association (SAMBRA), an affiliate association of the Retail Motor Industry Organisation, says globally consumers have become more conscious of the role of passive safety systems, like airbags, in cars.

While many motorists are prepared to pay a premium for the very latest systems that can protect them and their loved ones in a collision, Green points out though that, overall, South African car buyers are not very critical of safety features; they buy what they can afford regardless of how safe the car actually is.

“Industry trends in South Africa indicate factors like reliability, manufacturer’s reputation, fuel efficiency and price all outrank safety features. The truth is, the majority of motorists can only afford entry level cars which come with basic safety features,” he says.

“The local picture is concerning, when you consider airbags are a basic safety feature which are manufactured at a relatively low cost. Yet, many cars on our roads don’t have airbags.”

He explains that the bag itself is made of thin nylon fabric which is folded into the steering wheel, dashboard, the seat or door of the car. Inflation happens when there is a collision of a certain force and the sensors receive information from an accelerometer built into a microchip. The airbag is inflated by hot blasts of nitrogen.

“The most important thing for motorists to understand about airbags is that they are not guaranteed lifesaving mechanisms; they are designed to reduce the risk of serious injury or death, but do not come with guaranteed results.”

4 things to note about the mechanics of airbags:

  1. Before an airbag deploys, certain thresholds need to be reached along one of the vehicle’s axes – length of the car, side to side or up and down axes. The axes of the applied force will determine which airbags are deployed.
  2. Airbags don’t simply deploy when a force is applied and impact sensors do not really measure “force” as much as they trigger events in response to a change in velocity. For example, if you brake very hard, the airbags will not deploy. But, if you hit something and your car slows down by a big enough margin over a short enough period of time, the sensors will be activated.
  3. In vehicles fitted with an occupant sensor on the seat, the airbag controller unit is programmed to consider the presence of that person a condition of deployment. In other words, the airbag in that position will not be deployed if nobody is sitting there. A critical safety concern, therefore, is small children standing on the seat who are not heavy enough to activate the occupant sensor.
  4. Most modern vehicles have seatbelt shackle sensors too. Typically, an alarm sound goes off if the seatbelt is not engaged. When it is, the vehicle is “aware” you are wearing a seatbelt. The airbag controller unit would then be programmed not to deploy the airbag if an occupant is not wearing a seatbelt, under certain conditions.

“Recalls by manufacturers of airbags have happened – and continue to happen – in South Africa and elsewhere. We urge motorists to always take their vehicle in if they receive a notification about a recall and not just ignore this,” Green says.

“A serious issue is children standing on the front seat or up against the dashboard. This is highly irresponsible if you consider the injuries an airbag can cause to an adult. If a child falls forward when you brake and the airbag deploys as the child hits the dashboard, the ‘explosion’ is in direct contact with the child. This alone can lead to serious injury or death.”

Airbags are not a new concept – research indicates the first commercial airbags appeared in cars in the 1980’s and before that were tested in planes in World War ll.

Experts have always, however, cautioned they should be used in conjunction with seatbelts.

“Seatbelts were the primary form of passive safety system in our cars for many years. There were debates over their safety, especially for child passengers, but the use of seatbelts eventually became law, in South Africa and most other parts of the world,” Green notes.

“SAMBRA supports Arrive Alive’s view that buckling up is still the best way to protect a driver and passengers.”