Like insurance policies, your car’s airbags are one of those things you don’t think about until that fateful moment when you really need them. Yet it’s seldom acknowledged how a big difference these pyrotechnically-activated inflatable cushions really make during a severe collision.
Another fact to bear in mind is that a car’s seatbelt isn’t necessarily going to prevent you from colliding with the steering wheel during a high-speed crash.
Don’t get us wrong, you would be significantly worse off without a seatbelt. In fact, and there’s no nice way to say this, not buckling up is just downright stupid.
Yet to stand a fighting chance in a collision involving another heavy object at speed, you actually want the belt and bag - hence the SRS label that you often see above where the airbag is located. That stands for ‘supplemental restraint system’ because the seatbelt is your ‘primary restraint system’. Don’t kid yourself, you need to buckle up or the airbag is practically useless.
To illustrate the difference that an airbag can actually make in an accident, the Automobile Association of New Zealand compiled a video showing crash test footage, from EuroNCAP and its Aussie equivalent, comparing vehicles with and without airbags, and it’s quite scary.
We need to throw in a disclaimer, however, as the cars in the video that are fitted with airbags are newer-generation cars with superior crumple zones and the ones without are older models with less stable structures.
While the structural comparison might seem a bit unfair, although to us it only highlights the importance of buying a car with a solid safety structure, there’s still no denying the difference that an airbag makes.
Hungry for a more direct comparison, we dug up a pair of Global NCAP videos that show the Indian-market Volkswagen Polo being tested with and without airbags. Without them, and in spite of having a very crash-worthy structure, the hatchback failed to score a single star for adult occupant protection.
The crash test authority later tested a Polo with two airbags (as per SA models) and with them the car scored four stars. Note how much better protected the driver is when cushioned by an airbag:
In similar cases, the Tata Zest (a.k.a. Bolt) also went from zero to four stars with the fitment of airbags, while the Renault Duster climbed from zero to three.
Not convinced yet? This is the Renault Duster crashing without airbags:
Despite all the evidence showing what essential safety features airbags are, there are still many countries including South Africa, where some of the cheaper cars are sold without these life savers. And then consider that frontal (driver and passenger) airbags have been mandatory in the United States since the late 1990s.
And let’s not even get started on ABS brakes.
It’s a shocking state of affairs.