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older airbags

background

Airbags like all mechanical components have a limited lifespan. There is growing concern that as airbags age, their ability to protect vehicle occupants in a crash may degrade.

RACV cannot give specific advice to individual members about the condition of the airbags in their particular vehicle. However, this sheet provides general information on the topic, as well as advice on what they can do to help ensure their vehicle's airbag(s) continue to work as they were designed to.

RACV position

  • RACV is unaware of any cases in which older airbags have failed to protect occupants in a crash.
  • RACV believes the vehicle industry (including airbag manufacturers and car-makers), government and motoring clubs must work together to provide accurate and meaningful advice to motorists addressing the performance and maintenance of older airbags.
  • Owners of vehicles equipped with an airbag are advised to consult their owner's manual, or the vehicle manufacturer, to determine what actions may be necessary to ensure the continued operation the airbag(s).

introduction

Airbags are the devices that inflate in a severe collision, forming a "cushion" between vehicle occupants and the vehicle interior. Typically found in the driver position (stored within the steering wheel), airbags are increasingly fitted to the front passenger-side of the vehicle (stored in the dashboard), as well as beside vehicle occupants (side airbags - located within the doors or within the seat itself).

Airbags have been fitted to vehicles sold in Australia since the mid-1980s. Originally only found in more expensive luxury vehicles, today driver airbags are fitted to virtually every new passenger car; passenger and side airbags are becoming more popular. Driver airbags became widespread in Australian vehicles since the introduction of the Holden Commodore VR in 1993, while the Ford Falcon was first fitted one in 1994.

how long do airbags last?

Airbags consist of several components:

  • The electronics determine whether, and when, the bag is fired. These include at least one sensor typically located in the vehicle at some point forward of the driver, and used to detect the early stages of a severe impact.
  • The airbag itself is typically a woven nylon bag, folded in its capsule (eg. within the steering wheel for the driver).
  • The inflator is a metal container that stores the explosive charge, used to quickly inflate the airbag in a severe crash.

As long as the vehicle is kept in reasonable condition, the electronics and airbag may last for the life of the vehicle. However there are varying statements from industry experts about the lifespan of inflators.

All airbags are designed specifically for each individual model, however the basic technologies are often shared. Car-makers have variously indicated lifespans for their airbag systems of 10 years and upwards. At least one manufacturer has stated the inflator is valid for the lifespan of the vehicle.

what are the potential consequences of neglecting an older airbag?

At present, RACV is unaware of any evidence where older airbags have failed to protect occupants.

Eventually, degradation of the propellant charge means that older airbags will not inflate with the same pressure and speed as when they were new. This may compromise their ability to protect occupants, and result in more serious injuries. However at present, it is not clear how long after an airbag was placed in service this may happen.

The oldest airbags in the Australian fleet are approaching 20 years of age. RACV stresses that it has no evidence that any airbags of any age in the current Australian fleet have failed to protect occupants in a crash.

airbag maintenance and replacement

RACV is unaware of any type of check, or maintenance procedure that can be performed to certify an airbag as fully-functioning. While most airbags have a check light on the instrument panel, this indicates only that the electronics are basically functioning, rather than the overall condition of the airbag system.

The cost of replacing a driver airbag will vary from model-to-model, however it will typically be at least $1000 for parts, and significantly more once labor is accounted for. For most motorists, and considering the residual value of most cars with an age of 10 years or more, this cost is prohibitive.

Motorists are advised to consult their owner's manual, or the customer service department for their respective brand of vehicle, in order to determine what type of maintenance is recommended.

further research

As vehicles continue to age, the issue of older airbag performance will grow in importance. Questions that must be better answered include:

  • What are the effects of ageing on the performance of the range of individual airbag systems fitted to Australian vehicles?
  • What type of testing or checks can be performed by workshops on individual airbag systems to determine whether they are working correctly or not?
  • How might the replacement of components for ageing airbags differ from replacement of airbag systems that have "fired" in a crash?


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