In the know: How do airbags work?


An airbag is one of the most important safety features a car can have. Its purpose is to reduce the impact one might suffer in the event of a crash, therefore, increasing one’s rate of survival should a vehicle be involved in some kind of accident.


  • How do airbags work?

    According to the NHTSA, airbags work when the airbag sensor is activated. It prompts the igniter to trigger the inflator to inflate the airbags.
  • How fast do airbags inflate?

    The NHTSA said that the inflation happens in the blink of an eye.
  • This automotive feature has protected countless individuals, and as today’s technology continues to advance, so has the number of lives saved by airbags.

    Today, we break down the science behind airbags.


    Airbags deploy in the event of an accident, but how does your vehicle know when to switch on this safety feature and when to pop the airbag?

    “Generally, when there is a moderate to severe crash, a signal is sent from the airbag system's electronic control unit to an inflator within the airbag module. An igniter in the inflator starts a chemical reaction that produces a harmless gas, which inflates the airbag within the blink of an eye — or less than 1/20th of a second,” explained the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

    The most common airbags are the ones found in the driver's and passenger’s area. Toyoda Gosei, a member of Toyota Group and a company known for manufacturing automotive components, said that the driver’s side airbags are installed in the center of the steering wheel and deploy during frontal collisions to protect the driver. Meanwhile, passenger’s side airbags are installed either on the car’s dashboard on the front passenger’s side.

    Placing the airbags in these areas helps provide the occupants with a certain level of protection from the hard components of the vehicle such as the steering wheel and the dashboard.

    “Front airbags are designed to inflate in moderate to severe frontal crashes to prevent a person's head and chest from contacting hard structures in the vehicle. They offer the most protection when occupants are wearing safety belts and sitting properly in the seat but are designed to provide protection for all occupants,” said the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

    Other companies even offer additional airbags on top of the ones at the front — albeit at an added cost. These include knee airbags, side airbags, curtain airbags, and front center airbags.


    Airbags are also used in motorcycles. Honda offers a frontal airbag on one of its motorcycles and riders whose motoring needs do not suit the Gold Wing use wearable crash-activated airbag vests.

    These airbag vests are designed to protect the rider’s center mass in the event of a crash. A tether connects the vest and the motorcycle and is activated as the rider is separated from the motorcycle. The airbag vest inflates within a fraction of a millisecond.

    Photos from Toyoda Gosei, NCAP, and Honda

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