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  • An airbag saved my life but scared the crap out of me

    Posted on November 16th, 2011 Patrick 2 comments

    I’m not going to knock airbags. I’m convinced that the airbag in my car saved my life, allowing me to sit here and write this. What I hope to convey is some sense of what happens when an airbag deploys. It startled me. For a moment I thought my car was on fire.1Fire is a good indicator of fire. I contemplated abandoning my car and taking my chances with the oncoming traffic on the highway.

    totalled volvo

    Sitting at the Lehman's lot in South Minneapolis

    Here is my car after it was towed to the body shop. At first glance, it may not look that bad. but this is a Volvo XC70, a car built like a tank. I suppose the design and durability of the car deserve some credit for my survival as well, but I still hate to think what would have happened if I had hit my head on the steering column, as I most certainly would have without the airbag.

    The accident is a swirl of vague memories. I was driving on the highway, and a rain storm had just ended. The storm came quickly and dropped incredible amounts of rain in a short time. With little warning, I hit a patch of standing water and the car hydroplaned. I tried my best to steer the car, and for a moment, I almost felt like I had it under control. But then, the car went into a spin. I’m sure it went around at least one full time before slamming into the concrete barrier in the middle of the freeway.

    I don’t remember the airbag popping out. What I remember is seeing a flash, and then flames shooting from the dash. I heard a whooshing sound, and the passenger compartment filled with smoke. The car continued to spin and finally came to a rest in the left lane, facing the oncoming traffic.

    Still dazed, and watching the oncoming cars swerve to miss me, I began to wonder if the car was on fire and whether I should abandon it immediately. I looked for sign of fire coming through the dashboard, but didn’t see any. I was perplexed by this and didn’t know yet the source of the flames I saw. The smoke in the car was still thick, and I was coughing, but I began to think that I could take some time to wait for the traffic to slow (as congestion began to build up). I think that was the correct decision, as abandoning my car earlier in a panic could have put me in the path of an oncoming car.

    It took a while before I began to understand what happened. My right wrist had what I had at first thought to be a bruise, but later, while riding in the tow truck, the driver looked over and said, “looks like you got an airbag burn.” I said I thought it was a bruise but he seemed convinced it was a burn. He explained that air bags are inflated with, as he called it, rocket fuel, and that as the bag deflates, hot gases and smoke escape through small holes in the back.

    That started to make sense. I looked it up online, and sure enough the propellent for airbags is similar to the solid-fuel propellent used for model rockets. When an accident happens, a sensor ignites the propellent, and with luck the airbag is fully inflated by the time your face hits it. As your face presses forward, the gas escapes through a couple of quarter sized holes in the back. It’s not uncommon for the escaping gas, still hot, to cause burns.

    If you have ever watched a model rocket launch, the sounds and smells are very much the same. Thrilling to be sure when part of a rocket launch, but frightening during an accident, when you don’t understand what is going on. Oddly, just a couple days after the accident, I watched a movie that had a scene where airbags deployed in an accident. It was a comedy, and the bags popped out and deflated, and everyone was stunned but OK. At least that part was accurate. But the air in the passenger compartment was pristine. Nobody was coughing. Nobody got burned. Nobody ran from the car as though it were on fire.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a depiction of an airbag deployment that matched what I remember. Up until shortly after my accident, I thought airbags inflated with compressed air. Now I know better. I hope that by sharing this, I can help spare someone else the anxiety and fear I felt because I was unprepared.


    2 responses to to “An airbag saved my life but scared the crap out of me”

    1. Interesting reading; glad you’re OK, of course. I didn’t know about airbag deployment details, never having been in a major accident – I would have guessed compressed air as well.

    2. “In a vast Swedish car…” Radiohead, reinterpreted.

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