Airbags have become a ubiquitous safety feature that all modern U.S. manufactured cars carry standard. In fact, I would venture to say that many people would hesitate to ride in a car without airbags. As much as we rely on them in our worst collisions, most people understand very little about airbags, both their history and functional design. To help you understand how your airbags work and how to get the most out of your airbag, read on for some interesting facts about one of your car’s greatest safety features.

1. While proven to increase the survivability of an adult in a variety of collisions, children are often injured or killed if in a position that puts them directly in the impact of an airbag. Small children should always ride in the second row, properly restrained in a booster or safety seat away from the impact of an airbag. Rear facing child safety seats should never be placed in the front row passenger seat as the impact of an airbag could cause major injury or death to the restrained child. Similarly, small adults may benefit from sitting over 10 inches from the steering wheel as they can also be injured from the rapid expansion of the airbag.

2. To most effectively use your deployed airbag, you must be wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. Without a seatbelt, your risk for whiplash increases and you risk ejecting from your vehicle as your body is no longer restrained within the vehicle. The idea behind an airbag is to increase the stopping time your body experiences in the sudden deceleration of a motor vehicle accident. The disjointed stopping motion of the human body can cause a variety of bone and soft tissue injuries in a motor vehicle collision. Without the restraint of a seatbelt, the human body can be ejected from a vehicle or have greater deceleration in the case of an accident. Coupled with an airbag, seatbelts can save lives of drivers and passengers alike.

3. When the sensor in the airbag detects a significant collision, a chemical reaction causes a rapid expansion in the bag. Sodium azide and potassium nitrate react violently and suddenly to release nitrogen gas to expand the protective bag. Without the reaction, all you have is a sensor that determines the severity of the crash. Holes in the bag also allow the bag to quickly deflate and allow the drivers and passengers to move following the collision. While it is not always advisable to move about the cabin following a collision, the ability to do so is a fantastic safety feature to ensure the safety of others as well.

At the end of the day, the tools we use in our vehicles are only secondary to our ability to drive defensively and avoid collisions. Accident avoidance and safe driving practices will always be the safest tool for any driver, until perhaps cars start making the decisions for us.