How do airbags deploy?

Drivers should ask questions before they buy auto insurance like, "How do airbags deploy?" so they can be knowledgeable car owners and recognize when their airbags are not working. Airbags will deploy when crash sensors detect a collision. Then, the airbags fill with air in order to protect the driver and passengers.

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Sara Routhier, Managing Editor and Outreach Director, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming world o...

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Written by Sara Routhier
Director of Outreach Sara Routhier

Cynthia Lanctot is an insurance professional with ten years of industry experience. Cynthia is licensed in several states, and holds an associate in claims law, as well as a bachelor’s degree in English. Cynthia’s experience includes the New England and Northeast states. She currently works as a liability claims professional and an occasional online contributor.

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Reviewed by Cynthia Lanctot
Licensed Agent Cynthia Lanctot

UPDATED: May 10, 2022

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A Concise Overview

  • Crash sensors activate airbag deployment
  • Airbags can deploy in under 60 seconds
  • Airbags can save lives and prevent serious injuries during a car crash

As much as no one wants to even think about being in an accident, it is vital that you familiarize yourself with one of the best defensive tools you have in your vehicle before you get out on the road. If you aim to be a safe driver who always has affordable auto insurance, asking, “How do airbags deploy?” will take you that much closer to achieving your goal.

Your airbag system is one of the most critical safety devices in your car. An airbag that deploys properly can protect you from serious injuries and, possibly, even death. Knowing how to make sure your airbag system is working is incredibly important.

Thankfully, with today’s technology, you can conduct an internet search for “auto insurance quotes” and “how do airbags deploy” and find free resources to help you. Keep reading to learn how to familiarize yourself with airbag systems so you can stay safe while driving.

If you’ve ever asked, “How do airbags deploy?” enter your ZIP code to get free insurance quotes from insurance companies near you that reward safe drivers.

How do airbags work?

Typically, airbags are packed tightly into your car’s dashboard, steering wheel, and along the sides of your car as well. Front airbags reside in the cabin, while side airbags are placed along the doors. Made up of flexible materials, your airbags are compressed until you are in a crash.

So how do airbags protect you? If your car is involved in a hard collision, your airbags’ crash sensors are alerted. Then, the airbags swell with air at incredible speeds and burst out to cushion you from the impact but keep you from being buffeted about the car’s cabin as well.

The crash sensors are very sensitive pieces of equipment that respond to sudden stopping and increased pressure. There are other sensors in the airbag control unit that measure:

  • Wheel speed
  • Seat occupant status
  • Brake pressure
  • Impact

Together, these sensors work to deploy your airbag just when you need it.

Do airbags deploy when a car is not moving? Yes, they certainly can because the sensors activate when pressure is exerted on them. This means that even if you are waiting at a stoplight and a car slams into yours, it exerts pressure on your vehicle. If it exerts enough pressure, your airbag sensors should react and deploy the airbag.

There are actually two types of airbag sensors found in cars: electrical and mechanical. Let’s examine the differences between the two, so you can properly measure up the pros and cons of these systems.

Electrical Airbag Sensors

You can find a variety of electrical airbag sensor designs, but many electrical sensors follow the same principles as the sensors that employ a “ball and tube” mechanism.

Within such a mechanism, there is a small tube that contains a circuit switch and ball. A small magnet holds these elements together. At a point of impact, the ball becomes dislodged and hits a switch in the tube. This forward movement completes the electrical circuit and releases the airbag.

Mechanical Airbag Sensors

While mechanical sensors have the same sort of responses as their electrical counterparts, they operate independently from your car’s electrical system.

These sensors are activated when a firing pin is released after a crash and causes a small explosion to propel the airbag forward. Free from any power source, a mechanical airbag sensor can’t be deactivated when your car battery is removed.

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Which type of airbag sensor is better?

Both sensors work well, and some car manufacturers use a combination of the two. This combination of an electrical and mechanical airbag system is known as an electromechanical system. Both Toyota and Jaguar design their vehicles with this type of system.

If you were to ask your auto insurance company, “How do airbags deploy?” you most likely wouldn’t get a scientific explanation. However, you would be told that, essentially, your airbag is working to keep you alive. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reported that the number of driver fatalities was reduced by 29% due to the proper deployment of the drivers’ front airbags.

Airbag statistics are certainly impressive, and no matter which type of airbag sensor you have, you can rest easy knowing that your car can get you where you need to be safely.

What is the minimum speed for airbag deployment?

Have you ever wondered, “At what speed do airbags deploy in a front-end collision?”or “At what speed do airbags deploy in a side collision?”

If you were in an accident that triggered the release of your airbag, it would deploy in about 55 milliseconds, which translates to almost 200 miles per hour.

Since your airbag deploys in the blink of an eye, it is incredibly important that you always use your seat belt while driving.

Most airbags are designed to work in conjunction with seat belt safety. So, if you aren’t belted into your seat and are thrown from the proper position during an accident, you could be injured by your airbag.

How can drivers verify that their airbags are functional?

Just as you should ask questions before you buy auto insurance, asking, “How do airbags deploy, and how do I know if my airbags are working properly?” is a smart move for all car owners.

In order to know that your airbags are working properly, you need to learn to recognize the signs when something is wrong with your airbag system.

For example, if there is a problem, you should see the illuminated airbag light on your dashboard. If you see that light come on, you should contact your mechanic and have the car serviced right away.

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Are airbags costly to replace?

After taking all this in, you may now be asking yourself, “How much does it cost to replace an airbag?”

The cost of replacing an airbag will vary as the type of car you drive and the type of airbag you need play a role in determining that dollar amount. For example, you may have to pay anywhere between $400 and $800 to replace your driver’s side airbag. However, you could pay as much as $1,000 for a new passenger-side airbag.

But airbags are well worth the price tag that accompanies them. As a reminder of the importance of your airbag system, take a look at how many lives airbags have saved in past years:

Lives Saved by Safety Restraints and Airbags over 27 Years

YearSeat Belts (age 5+)Frontal Air BagsChild Restraints
(age 4 and younger)
1975–2007241,86525,2948,884
200813,3122,557262
200912,7572,481281
201012,6702,403286
201112,0712,341245
201212,3862,422267
201312,6442,398246
201412,8012,400236
201514,0622,597255
201614,7532,774319
201714,9552,790325
Total374,27650,45711,606
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Your airbag system is complex and requires the knowledge of a professional to fix or replace, but the security it can offer you and your passengers is priceless.

Your Airbag System Explained

Your airbag system is typically located in the front of your car, and many cars often have them lined along the sides, too. When pressure is exerted upon your vehicle during a collision, sensitive crash sensors trigger the release of your airbag. In under 60 seconds, the airbag fills with air and is deployed to protect you.

Airbags have saved many drivers’ lives and prevented others from serious injury. However, you should always wear your seat belt properly so you aren’t knocked out of position by an impact and then hit by your airbag in a way that does more harm than good.

Realize that safety features like airbags can help lower your auto insurance rates. If you want to know, “How do airbags deploy, and how do I find cheap insurance?” enter your ZIP code to get free quotes from insurance companies near you today.

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