Safety Warnings

Air Bag Warning for Adults

Air bags are designed to supplement the protection provided by safety belts in frontal or near-frontal crashes. In fact, air bags are most frequently labeled “Supplemental Restraint Systems” or “SRS” by automobile manufacturers. The overall performance and safety records of SRSs is excellent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that SRSs have saved 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008.  AIR BAGS SAVE LIVES!

However, as more SRS-equipped vehicles enter the traffic mixture, and hence become more frequently involved in traffic crashes, highway safety professionals are identifying specific instances where SRSs actually increase the injury risk to certain drivers and passengers. What are these instances and what can be done to reduce the inherent risks?


The name Supplemental Restraint System implies that air bags are supplemental to the primary restraint system — lap and shoulder belts. While this is true, the full extent of the air bag/safety belt relationship is far more complex. For the SRS to function as designed (upon sufficient contact, the bag explodes at speeds up to 200 MPH for 12 to 18 inches and begins deflating just as the vehicle occupant contacts the fully deployed bag), the vehicle occupant in front of the bag must be in the proper position. This position can only be maintained during crash dynamics if the occupant is properly restrained by the vehicles’ lap and shoulder belts. Occupants not properly restrained can be hit with the full 200 MPH force of an exploding air bag which can easily break bones, including the neck, solely with that force or by slamming the occupant against an object such as the rear-view mirror.  SAFETY BELTS MUST BE USED WITH AIR BAGS!

Air bags do not deploy in the billowing cloud-like manner as seen in certain television advertisements. As mentioned above, air bags explode at speeds of 200 MPH for 12 to 18 inches. This is a violent reaction, necessary to have the bag deployed and beginning to slowly deflate when the occupant contacts the bag. An automobile dealer will be able to tell you how far the bag explodes in a specific vehicle. If any vehicle occupant is within that distance of the bag in the normal driving or riding position, one thing must be done: move! For passengers in vehicles with bucket or split seats, the rule is simple: move the passenger seat as far to the rear as possible. For passengers in vehicles with bench seats, the rule is also simple: get the driver to move as far to the rear as possible and still maintain vehicle control. For drivers, move the seat as far back as you can and still be able to reach and operate the essential controls — steering wheel, brakes, clutch, accelerator pedal, and turn signals. Don’t worry about the sound system, air conditioner, clock, miles to destination computer, etc. These can be adjusted by passengers or by the driver when stopped. Remember, in a frontal crash, you will go forward for some distance before the safety belts stop you, so add a few inches of leeway in determining how far away from the air bag is sufficient. If you feel too close, you probably are too close.  KEEP AWAY FROM THE AIR BAG!

Short drivers, especially older short drivers, are a particular risk with currently configured automobiles. For these drivers, it is especially difficult, if not impossible, to get sufficient separation between them and the air bag. However, specific adjustments may make a difference. First, the proper use of the primary restraint system, safety belts, is absolutely essential. Second, move the seat as far back as possible, and adjust seat cushion height and seat back angle if the seat has that capability, to find the optimum position and still reach the necessary controls. This may entail a complete change in the driver’s driving position, but could provide the necessary separation. Third, if the steering column is adjustable, position the column so that the bag will be aimed directly at the driver’s chest. This will keep the bag from hitting the head directly (and perhaps snapping the neck) or hitting the driver so low that the upper body goes over the top and still contacts internal vehicle parts. Fourth, approved adaptive devices which could provide the necessary separation, ranging from basic pedal extenders to full hand control systems, are available.  SHORT DRIVERS MUST MAKE SPECIAL ADAPTATIONS!

Disabling the SRS is currently not a legal or advisable option. In the overall evaluation of SRSs, this system prevents far more fatalities and injuries than it causes. No dealer, garage, mechanic, or Joe’s wife’s friend’s sister-in-law’s nephew will accept the liability of disabling this protective system.  DO NOT DISABLE AIR BAGS!

Manufacturers, insurance companies, and government safety agencies are aware of the potential risk of SRSs and are jointly working toward solutions. Developments currently undergoing evaluation include seat sensors which control rate of deployment based on seat position and occupant size, switches which may temporarily disable bags, and bags which do not deploy when the protected seat is not occupied. Some of these are close to being introduced.  HELP IS ON THE WAY!

The Florida Highway Patrol hopes the above will increase your understanding of how air bags work and what you can do to adapt your driving to ensure the safest possible ride in your present car. Remember, also, to consider all the above when you next try out a new, used, or leased vehicle.  CHECK OUT ANY NEW VEHICLE!

Air Bags save lives.
Air Bags can increase risks, if you do not adjust to their characteristics.