ACRS Policy Position
Airbags in Australian vehicles are to be seen as a passive restraint device which has greatest safety benefit when used in conjunction with properly fitted and adjusted seat belts.
ACRS notes that:
- airbags have now proved their worth in saving lives and preventing severe injuries, especially to the head and face
- the characteristics of airbag operation are such that some minor injuries such as grazing and temporary hearing damage are possible, but that these will be much less than the injuries that airbags prevent
- Australia has very high seat belt wearing rates. Because of this, airbags in Australian cars are set to trigger at higher road speeds than in US vehicles, and are consequently less likely to fire unnecessarily
- for these same reasons, there have been no cases in Australia of major injuries caused by inflating airbags, like those that have been reported in the United States
- Australian users should nevertheless avoid the possibility of injuries by always restraining infants and children in approved restraints in the back seat.
- To support and encourage the fitting of airbags in Australian motor vehicles as an important adjunct to crash protection, and
- To promote correct understanding of the risks and benefits of airbags for adult and child passengers.
Airbags in Australian cars are a supplementary restraint and are most effective when seat belts are worn, to further mitigate the injury consequences of serious crashes. This is in direct contrast to the US situation where air bags were first introduced as one form of ‘passive’ restraint system to help reduce the effects of low wearing rates and generally (by comparison with Australia) much less effective seat belt wearing laws.
Air bags in Australian cars are not mandatory. The Australian Design Rule that deals with frontal occupant protection requires only that manufacturers achieve given safety standards in relation to head, chest and upper leg injury. The rule does not specify the means whereby the standard is to be met. All new vehicles sold in Australia meet the standard even if air bags are not fitted.
For these reasons airbags in Australian cars are usually triggered to inflate at a higher impact speed than in US cars, to reflect their function as a supplementary restraint of most benefit in very severe impacts. They are generally smaller than in US vehicles and are less likely to be triggered ‘unnecessarily’ than has been reported in some US publications. Research on crashes involving Australian cars equipped with airbags shows a very low incidence of airbag-induced injuries and of ‘false’ firings.
Some air bag induced injuries do occur; except for the ones that happen when a person is not restrained by a seat belt or is not seated properly in the car seat, they are mostly grazes and perhaps burst eardrums. Almost any air bag induced injury is far less than any injuries that might happen without it. Air bags are triggered only in very severe crashes.
Airbags are not a soft, billowing cushion as appears to be depicted in some advertisements. To do the job it is designed for the airbag system has to sense that a crash has already commenced, which means that the front of the car is starting to crush under the impact; to determine that the impact is severe enough to trigger the operating mechanism, and to fire the explosive gas generating device that inflates the bag in time to cushion the impact of the occupant coming forward to meet the dashboard or steering wheel. This takes place within about 60 milliseconds of the impact. The bag then deflates immediately.
This means that the inflating bag comes out of the steering wheel hub or dashboard at around 200km/h, and that the whole sequence takes place in less than one third of one second. In most cases the firing, inflating and deflating of the air bag will be ‘lost’ in the general impact and noise of the crash itself and will probably be unnoticed.
Seat belts remain the primary and most effective means of injury prevention, and particularly provide protection in crashes other than frontal (side and rear) and in rollovers, which airbags are much less effective at doing. Some manufacturers have begun fitting side airbags to reduce the incidence of injuries in side impacts.
The presence of an airbag should never be regarded as a substitute for a seat belt. Seat belts are the primary means of restraining and protecting car occupants, while airbags provide supplementary protection. Belts should therefore always be worn, and the more as they are effective at impact speeds that are low enough not to trigger the airbag.
To avoid the risk of injury, front seat occupants should be firmly restrained and the seat as far back as possible consistent with comfort and access to controls. This applies to small adults in the driver’s seat.
Australian standards for child restraints mean that properly tethered approved restraints can only be mounted in the back seat, so that the anchorage provided can be used. Infants and young children should always be in an approved restraint in the back seat, as is required by law in most States.
There is a need for education and publicity on airbags to continue, to ensure that the need for seat belt use is sustained, and that children are properly restrained in the back seat.
There is also concern that fitting bullbars to vehicles changes the stiffness of the vehicle’s frontal structure and therefore the triggering of the airbag. Fitting bullbars is undesirable for other reasons such as pedestrian safety, but vehicle owners need to be aware of the possible adverse consequences. Vehicle owners contemplating fitting bullbars should only do so with the advice of the vehicle manufacturer. Some manufacturers market bullbars that are less detrimental to pedestrian safety, and that are integrated with the vehicle’s frontal structure and crash characteristics.