Airbags are still an explosive topic


I saw an interesting note today: This year, a majority of the airbags in cars are twenty years old (assuming they haven’t been detonated and replaced, that is). BMW offered a driver’s-side airbag as an option in the 7 Series in 1985, and passenger side bags in 1990. Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo also offered airbags in the late 1980s. Driver’s-side bags appeared universally in 1993, passenger bags the next year, when TRW standardized the design.
One online discussion tackled the subject of whether old airbags still work. It seems a bit like a similar conversation I’ve had about parachutes—or the grizzly-bear repellant I saw in the general store at Dawson City in the Yukon during the 2004 Alcan 5000 Winter Rally. I asked the guy behind the counter how it worked, and he told me that you have to spray it directly on the bear’s nose, from no farther than 25 feet away.
That seemed like pinpoint shooting to me, so I asked, “How long does it take a grizzly to cover 25 feet?”
“About three seconds,” he said.
“So you don’t get many complaints if it doesn’t work?”
“No,” he replied—and he wasn’t smiling.
I suspect that airbag deployment may be a similar situation, but I’m comforted by two bits of information. One is that airbags as old as those offered in 1975 Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Cadillacs have been tested and still found to work—albeit not quite as fast, with the propellant somewhat diffused—and the other is that under extreme circumstances, NOTHING will save you. It’s just pure physics. As my dad used to say, “Speed doesn’t kill you, it’s stopping suddenly that’s the problem.”
So I think that you need every single advantage you can get. Drive a car with an airbag, wear your seatbelt—preferably pre-tightening—and don’t drive too fast. Of course, “too fast” is relative, but Skid-school guru Dane Pitarresi’s law is universal: “If you drive too fast for conditions, you will crash.”
And if you’re going to drive 180 mph on the Autobahn, buy an M5—like the people who survived an extraordinary crash in April 2012, when some chump pulled into the fast lane in front of them, going significantly slower. It’s rare to see crash pictures where apparently NO parts were reusable—rarer yet that everybody survived, even the dog. (Click here!)
Better to have the experience of an old friend who was a West Coast Volvo executive in the mid-1990s, when his Volvo 850 station wagon was rear-ended at high speed on Interstate 5, north of Seattle. I saw him the next week, and he reported that the car had to be dragged onto a tilt-bed wrecker, since none of the wheels would roll—and it was only about ten feet long.
I congratulated him on his survival, and he said, “You know the worst thing? The airbag blew my hands off the damn wheel, and smashed my Rolex against the door!”—Paul Duchene