Airbags are again fairly new technology, at least in Europe, although they have been fitted to American cars for many years. European bags - the Euro-bag - is different being smaller and triggered to go off only in harder frontal impacts and at higher vehicle speeds than the US version. The Euro-bags have proved very safe in use and there are no known instances of these airbags going off without good reason.
If sensors in the car and in the airbag agree that there is a major impact a signal ignites an explosive charge which rapidly breaks the pre-stressed steering wheel boss or dashboard cover and inflates the tightly folded airbag which catches and protects the driver's head and chest as it comes forward. This process takes just a few thousandths of a second and, having done it's job, the bag deflates after a few seconds.
There are a few simple do's and don'ts of which every owner of an airbag fitted car should be aware. If your car is so fitted it will say AIRBAG or SRS on the wheel and on a label on the drivers side door frame near the lock.
It is important to know that there is no possibility of any of the propellant or gas being released prematurely nor is there any risk from them either during or after inflation as both products are completely consumed during the process.
Any white, powdery, residue in the car after inflation is baking soda [sodium carbonate] a by-product of the propellant or the talcum powder or French chalk used to facilitate the bag's rapid deployment. Both are harmless. In the event of a car fire any form of extinguishant can safely be used and there is little risk of the airbag exploding if it becomes heated. NEVER attempt to cut or drill into the steering wheel or column of an airbag equipped car.
Any repairs should ONLY be carried out by a franchised dealer once the airbag has been deactivated by disconnecting the battery. However, this alone will not completely disable the airbag which has a 20-30 minute reserve electrical supply. Always wait for this reserve to discharge.
IF YOUR CAR HAS A FRONT PASSENGER AIRBAG DO NOT PLACE A BABY IN A REAR FACING BABY SEAT AFFIXED TO THE FRONT PASSENGER SEAT. IF YOU ARE UNSURE CHECK WITH YOUR CAR'S HANDBOOK.
Article © Graham Benge 2007