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5 Tips to Help Keep an Older Driver

Safe During an Airbag Deployment


The purpose of this article is to provide our readers with:

  • a basic review of the purpose and development of automotive airbags, and
  • to suggest ways older adults can use supplemental restraint systems to their full safety advantage

Just like seatbelts, airbags are a type of passive automobile safety restraint.  They are gas-inflated cushions built into the vehicle that, when triggered by crash sensors, ignite a rapid expansion of nitrogen gas into the cushion which then serves to protect you from the impact of an accident.

Look at any new car today and you’re likely to find an entire suite of airbags:  frontal airbags, side torso airbags, side curtain airbags, roof, knee, rear curtain, rear center, seat cushion, front center, hood airbags, and others.  Many newer vehicles even have inflatable seatbelts and rear-seat airbags.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), airbags have reduced driver fatalities by 29 percent and fatalities of front-seat passengers age 13 and older by 32 percent.

Birth of the Automotive Airbag

An accident during a Sunday afternoon trip in 1941 through the Pennsylvania countryside inspired John W. Hetrick (1918-1999) to design one of the most important advances in automobile safety; the automotive airbag.

Hetrick, a retired industrial engineering, received a patent in 1953 at a cost of $250 for what he called a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles.” According to American Heritage, his patent was the prototype for today’s modern airbag.  Hetrick designed the system to reduce injuries during emergency braking and frontal collisions.


History of Automotive Airbags

Both the Ford Motor Co. and General Motors started experimenting with inflatable airbags in the late 1950’s.  In 1971, Ford built an experimental airbag fleet. General Motors tested airbags on the 1973 model Chevrolet automobile, but they were only sold to the government.  The 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado was the first car with a passenger-side air bag intended for sale to the public.  In 1988, Chrysler became the first company to offer air bag restraint systems as standard equipment.  Since 1998, all new cars sold in the U.S. are required to have airbags on both the driver and passenger sides.


Smart Airbags

For many years, airbags were relatively dumb devices. If a sensor was activated, the explosive charge would be triggered and the airbag would inflate, regardless of any other factors.  Smart airbag technology still works on the same basic principles as it did in 1985, but the designs have become remarkably more refined.

The primary component of an advanced or “smart” airbag that distinguishes it from a standard airbag is the sensor system.  Smart airbags make use of a variety of additional sensors to determine whether or not the system should deploy.  The airbag control unit then decides whether or not to deploy once it begins receiving input from the sensors.  The entire process happens in less than 30 milliseconds.

Advanced frontal air bag systems automatically determine if and with what level of power the driver frontal air bag and the passenger frontal air bag will inflate. The appropriate level of power is based upon sensor inputs that can detect:

  • occupant size
  • seat position
  • seat belt use of the occupant
  • type of collision
  • crash severity
  • measure acceleration/deceleration sensors
  • pressure sensors
  • wheel speed sensors
  • brake pressure sensors and even gyroscopes that detect rollovers

Since 2006, every new car and truck must be equipped with advanced (dual-stage) frontal airbags.  They can detect whether they need to deploy at full force, reduced force or not at all, depending on the situation.


The Future

Engineers are experimenting with new technology in which airbags actually deploy outside of the vehicle, minimizing the impact and the severity of the collision altogether.

General Motors has developed a flexible-venting airbag which has a special vent that uses the driver’s forward momentum to push out the gas from the inflated bag, making for a less harsh impact. That airbag debuted on the driver’s side (only) of the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze.

In the immediate future, there will be more developments in active safety, (airbags and seatbelts are a passive safety system) such as pre-collision systems and lane departure warnings, to prevent accidents to begin with. David Zuby, chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), says that automakers will begin to fit forward-looking sensors that work in concert with airbags. “We might see airbags that deploy just before the crash, with even less energy than they do now,” he says.  “This will help reduce injuries from airbag deployment even further.”


Inflatable Seat Belt

While most airbags cushion passengers, the inflatable seat belt instead helps spread an accident’s force over a wider area on a person’s body. The result is that the accident doesn’t feel as severe, since the force isn’t as highly concentrated.

Ford introduced inflatable rear seatbelts on the 2011 Ford Explorer. Think of these as a cross between an airbag and a seatbelt. Ford says that it designed the inflatable seatbelts to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear-seat passengers, who are often children and the elderly and who can be more vulnerable to such injuries.


Older Driver Safety Concerns

The increased fatal crash risk among older drivers is largely due to their increased susceptibility to injury, particularly chest injuries, frailty, and medical complications.  With aging, we may not be able to withstand the physical trauma associated with an automobile accident.  Did you know that in a two-car fatal collision, where one driver is 70 or older, the older driver is 3.5 times more likely to be killed…that’s pretty significant!

Although older people with health issues can still be satisfactory drivers, they are at a higher risk of injury or death in an accident, regardless of who is at fault for the accident.  Airbags must deploy in milliseconds, and when they do, it isn’t like getting hit with a big, soft smushy pillow. Some people have compared it to getting kicked in the face by a horse.  Typical injuries from airbags can include chest injuries, concussions, whiplash, traumatic brain injuries and even neck or spine injuries. Again, these potential injuries are often exacerbated by the frailty of an older driver.


Part II:  Five Helpful Tips for Older Drivers


1)  Proper Steering Wheel Hand Placement

For decades, the theory on proper placement of the hands on the steering wheel was at the position of 10 and 2, but the advent of the airbag has changed that strategy.  Safety experts now recommend that drivers place their hands anywhere from 9 and 3 to as low as 7 and 4, which has shown to minimize injuries to hands and wrists sometimes caused by an exploding airbag.  At 10-2 or higher on the wheel, a driver’s arms can get walloped or thrown back into his or her face if there is an airbag deployment.  So remember the new rule:  9 and 3 or lower.

2)  Proper Seat Positioning

AAA reports that sitting closer than 10 inches from the steering wheel can increase the risk of airbag injuries in a crash.  This is especially true with older adults.  You also want to maintain a line of sight at least three inches above the top of the steering wheel.

3)  ALWAYS Wear Your Seat Belt

Air bags, when used in conjunction with properly placed seat belts, save thousands of lives each year.  Safety belts keep people in their seats and spread crash forces across the upper body’s stronger bony parts.  Airbags protect people from hitting things inside the vehicle or objects outside it.  Drivers and passengers who do not wear seatbelts can be thrown from a vehicle if the speed and impact of the accident is great enough. Remember, the airbag is designed to be used in harmony with your seat belt, not in place of it.

4)  Proper Headrest Placement

It has probably been awhile since you last thought about proper positioning, but they can be a very important safety device, especially in a rear-end collision.  According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, neck sprains and strains are the most frequently reported insurance claim injuries, and the agency puts the cost of these claims at around $8.8 billion each year, or 25 percent of the total dollars paid for all crash injuries combined.

Headrests are designed to help control the movement of vehicle occupants’ heads in rear-end collisions, thus reducing the chances of debilitating neck whiplash injuries. Adjust your headrest properly by:

  • Ensuring the top of the head restraint is as high as the top of your head
  • Positioning the head restraint as close to the rear of your head as possible

Having a locking head restraint is important. A headrest that cannot be locked in position may move during an accident.  Check your car’s manual for more detailed information about adjusting your headrest.  Remember to sit upright, the head restraint can’t help if the user is leaning to one side when a crash occurs.

5)  Buy the Right Vehicle

It is not uncommon for a vehicle to have ten or more airbags, some vehicles are even available with rear-seat airbags.  Virtually every new car comes with front, side and side-curtain airbags as standard equipment.  Some of the latest options include inflatable seat belts and front center airbags (protecting front seat occupants from each other in a collision).  Volvo has developed a pedestrian airbag that pops over the windshield in case you hit someone crossing the street.

To check the safety rating on a new vehicle that you might be considering, visit the IIHS website at to see how that vehicle measures up to current day safety standards.


Your vehicle’s airbag and safety belt systems, along with proper seat positioning, proper grip on the steering wheel, and even proper headrest placement all work in harmony to minimize the risk of injury to drivers and passengers alike.  Proper use of these devices becomes even more critical when we’re talking about protecting the members of Our Greatest Generation in the event of an automobile accident.

 About the author:

Matt Gurwell is founder of Keeping Us Safe, LLC,  a national organization that provides practical, real-life solutions to older drivers and their families.  Please visit their website at or 877-907-8841 for additional information on their programming.

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