The Hidden Dangers of Older Airbags

Source: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

For decades, we didn’t have to buckle up because, well, there was no such thing as a seatbelt back in the day. Then the government started requiring the installation of seatbelt systems in all vehicles, but their use was not deemed mandatory. Flash forward to 1984, and New York becomes the first state to mandate that all of drivers must wear a seatbelt.

This was shortly followed by the development of a safety advancement of unparalleled value: a gas-filled contraption designed to protect a car’s occupants from coming into contact with a steering wheel or dash during a head-on collision. Industry leaders called it the first-generation airbag, and according to the NHTSA, as of January 1, 2009, these airbags have been responsible for 296 deaths, including 191 children, 92 drivers, and 13 adult passengers in vehicles built prior to 1998.

While this may sound terrible, these airbags have also saved 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008 according to the NHTSA. A report by Edmunds says the NHTSA began to put mandatory regulations in place in order to help reduce airbag-related deaths and to convince drivers that airbags were indeed a life saver and not a “life taker.”

This report also states that modern airbag systems “must include sensors to detect the size of the occupant, the seat position, seatbelt use, and the severity of the crash.” Some automakers — like Mercedes-Benz and BMW — use sensors that can identify a child car seat on the front passenger seat and will suppress an airbag’s strength.

After airbagrelated deaths began catching negative media attention in the mid-1990s, the NHTSA modified a series of safety rules in 1997 requiring automakers to take any unnecessary force out of airbags, beginning with 1998 models. This was followed a few years later by the ushering in of advanced airbags, which alter deployment patterns according to feedback from a slew of sensors. This design eventually morphed into the modern day “certified-advanced airbag” that deploys at lower thresholds to further protect people who aren’t using seatbelts.

So this leaves us with a quandary: What are people supposed to do if they own an older car that does not have these advanced airbags? Automakers recommend replacing a car’s airbags every 10 years, but no one does that. Even if someone did, it’s not like the dealer is going to outfit the car with the latest-generation airbag system.

I own a 1991 Honda Accord, and I have zero interest in installing a first-generation airbag in the thing. If I had to choose between bracing myself for impact or kissing a first-gen airbag, I am going to take my chances and forego a smooching session with a potentially lethal balloon that wants to explode in my face.

Source: Ford

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, claims that “problems cropped up with the first generation of airbags in the mid-1990s. During crashes they were inflating with such force that they killed or seriously injured some children, small-stature adults, and other people who were too close to the bag when it inflated.”

When I read this report years ago, my first response was something along the lines of, “Well, thank goodness my Accord is the generation that came out right before all Hondas were outfitted with exploding balloons of doom!” To this day, I still refuse to retrofit my project car with an airbag or sensors.

I am not advocating the disassembly or disconnecting of a car’s outdated airbag system. These airbags have saved far more people than they have hurt, regardless of the force in which they are typically deployed. As long as someone is sitting far enough back from the dash (and are not too slight of stature) the chances of being seriously injured by an airbag are lessened considerably.

However, I have seen some people opt to increase their chances of survival while behind the wheel by purchasing a Recaro seat and wiring the race crash-tested seat’s airbag system into a vehicle’s existing first-gen system. I have also seen guys install Honda S2000 steering wheels and wire them into an older generation safety system with modern sensors so that it behaves like a certified advanced airbag system.

But all of that is a lot of work, and it is quite the electrical nightmare to install properly. So what is a driver to do? Well in short, nothing. The NHTSA never issued a “retro-mod recall” for cars equipped with early generation airbags, and the mere thought of something like this a decade ago would have put automakers in serious financial trouble overnight. 

But what if, in the next few years, the government made it mandatory to upgrade all first-gen airbag equipped cars with modern certified-advanced airbags? The number of cars on the road with this outdated technology has decreased dramatically within the last few years alone, so a “refresh” of outdated safety systems might not be as costly as we may think.

At the end of the day, a car crash is always going to be bad news regardless of what kind of safety equipment is or is not installed from the factory. There is no rhyme or reason to an all-out collision, just utter chaos. It seems like every day I hear news of a fatality involving a car outfitted with the latest safety equipment, leaving me to wonder what could have been done differently.

Then there is the whole Takata airbag fiasco, which doesn’t bode well for millions of car owners, so it seems like it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of scenario for everyone right now, regardless of what generation their car’s airbag is. As drivers, all we can do is keep our wits about us, drive defensively, and always remember to buckle up for safety.