Airbags work together with safety belts to protect you in a crash. They inflate a split second after impact and cushion your body by slowing the rate at which you move. Airbags have saved thousands of lives but even in a vehicle with airbags, you should always wear your safety belt. Some airbags are designed to inflate only in crashes where severe tension is placed on safety belts - and airbags aren't as protective as safety belts in some types of crashes, such as a rollover.

Different types of airbags

Front airbags

The most commonly available option, front airbags protect you in head-on or frontal crashes. There are different types of front airbags:

  • airbags for first row seats, which are stored in the steering wheel hub or dashboard:

    • driver's head airbag

    • front passenger's head airbag

    • dual-stage front airbags, which inflate to match approximately the size of the person in the car – usually this size judgement is based on the position of the seat

  • head airbags for second row seats.

Side airbags

Side impact airbags inflate in a side-on crash to protect people on the crashed side. 

  • Side torso (chest protecting) airbags protect the torso area only and are usually stored in the seat by the door. Side torso and head airbags also provide head protection.
  • Side curtain airbags are stored behind the roof trim, above the doors. They usually cover front and rear windows when they inflate, protecting people in both seats.
  • Head side airbags protect your head from coming into contact with the object you've hit. They can prevent fatalities that would otherwise be inevitable in this type of crash.

Knee airbags

Knee airbags are a new safety feature that help to keep people in their seated position during a front-on crash. There are two types of knee airbags:

  • the driver's knee airbag located below the steering column

  • the front passenger's knee airbag located below the glove box.

Facts about airbags

An airbag will not block the driver's vision in a crash – it inflates and deflates faster than you can blink.

  • Airbags are not soft. They inflate incredibly quickly – the front of an airbag moves towards you at between 160 to 320km/h.
  • Airbags can't be added to a car like some other equipment. They are designed to work with the safety system of a specific car model.
  • Some are bigger than others. Driver airbags in European cars are usually about 30–45 litres; American models may be up to 70 litres. Passenger airbags are typically much bigger.

Avoiding airbag injuries

Airbags can cause injury. To reduce this risk, newer airbags inflate more slowly. Some adjust to different types of crash or passenger size.

What you can do

  • Always wear a safety belt.

  • Don't sit too close to the steering wheel or slide the seat a long way forward.

  • Don't rest anything over the airbag cover or put anything between you and the airbag (except a safety belt).

  • Never put a rear-facing child restraint in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger airbag.

  • If your car crashes and the airbag inflates, legally you must replace the airbag if the car is less than 14 years old.

  • Read your vehicle manual for any other information about its airbags.