Vehicles’ frontal airbags may not deploy for off-center crashes

photo credit: Thomas Hawk Ain’t No Dummies Round Here — Detroit, MI via photopin (license)

We are not accustomed to seeing airbags at crash scenes. But what you may not know about them, is that they do not deploy as often as you might assume.

Frontal airbags are only designed to inflate in nearly direct frontal collisions and then only if the deceleration is abrupt enough. A common frontal impact is an off-center crash. You can picture a car crossing the center line and hitting with the driver’s side headlights of each car striking one another.

It’s only been in recent years that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began offset testing to measure these effects. Before this, frontal impact testing was fairly flat across the front bumper into a barrier. The two vehicles heading in an angle and then rotating is much more realistic. Unfortunately, frontal airbags rarely deploy if the collision is at a sufficient angle.

Unlike crash tests into barriers, real-world crashes typically do occur at angles other than directly into the front of the vehicle. Further, crash forces are not always evenly distributed across the front of a vehicle unless it’s driven straight into a barrier.

Hitting a stopped car will sometimes not even deploy the airbag if the crash’s forces are absorbed by the shove of the other car. Because barriers do not shove forward, airbags will deploy at 14 miles an hour or over. However, sometimes crashes involving over 30 miles an hour will not deploy an airbag if the impact was on something that could move in response.

This is because airbag sensors measure deceleration, or the sudden stop of impact. Therefore, actual vehicle speed is not a good indicator of whether an airbag should have deployed. Angle and deceleration are key.

Because steering wheel airbags tend to bend the driver and knock hands away from the wheel, airbags were not designed to be quick to deploy in more minor crashes.

On the other end of the spectrum, frontal airbags can deploy because of the vehicle’s undercarriage striking a fixed object, like a curb, if the stop is sharp enough.

Finally, if you were in an accident where airbags deployed, the smell of burning and smoke and the presence of white dusty powder will often give the illusion that your car is going to explode. While car fires and explosions can happen, they are exceedingly rare except in the movies. Notice the difference between white powdery haze versus smoke from something burning.

If you believe the car is burning or will explode, certainly evacuate it. But if it’s simply powder, be aware that It is possible to compound injuries by moving before emergency medical services can safely extricate you.

DAVID PEEL, a Memphis attorney, seeks justice for those injured in tractor trailer and car accidents, medical malpractice and disability. He often addresses churches, clubs and groups without charge. He may be reached through, where other articles are archived.