Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Airbags are Great, Except When They’re Not

A few weeks ago, I described safe driving as having your hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. (That essay was about “Lizard Brains,” so if you can figure out how safe driving techniques had anything to do with the instinctive, impulsive part of the human brain, please let me know, because I often have no idea how certain ideas make it into this column. It must be when my Lizard Brain starts typing while I’m off looking for a glazed cruller.)

Anyway, if you learned how to drive when I did, way back when 8-track tape players were an exotic new feature in automobiles, then you were taught the classic “10 and 2” rule. That is, if you look at the steering wheel as if it were a clock, you should hold the wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. With your hands there, we were told, you have the best control of the vehicle.
However, in response to the Lizard Brain essay, an alert reader named Rich sent me an email note pointing out that the “10 and 2” rule is no longer correct. Rich explained, “The recommended position is now 4 and 8, due to the airbag in the steering wheel. If it detonates, it will most likely send your hands to your face breaking your nose or your glasses.”

I did a little research and found some information published by AAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What alert reader Rich wrote to me was indeed correct — although it was far from complete.

Yes, it’s true that if your hands are on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 positions when the airbag deploys, the force could shove your arms back into your face and break your nose or give you a concussion. If that was all that happened to you, you would be getting off easy. The plastic center of a steering wheel, the part that splits open when the airbag inflates, can cause a lot of damage. Other injuries that have occurred in recent years when steering wheel airbags deployed include the following: amputation of fingers, amputation of entire hands, traumatic fractures, and an injury known as “degloving.”

Let me just say, I’ve got a fairly high tolerance for gross stuff, probably from watching too many Hollywood action movies over the years. But trust me, you do not want to look up the specifics of a “degloving” injury. No, I’m serious.
When you see commercials and the public service announcements about airbags, they always show them deploying in super slow motion. It looks like a nice fluffy pillow gently appearing, which cushions your head and chest, so you don’t bang into the steering wheel. It seems so pleasant and tender in those videos, like snuggling up with your favorite pillow for a nice nap.

In reality, superhot nitrogen gas flashes and inflates the airbag at a speed of between 150 and 250 mph. In other words, whenever an airbag deploys, an explosion occurs a foot or two from your face.

So, first off, I think we should outlaw the word “deploy” when describing airbags. It’s way too benign. Alert reader Rich’s word is far more accurate: detonate. Also, explode, blast, or KABOOM! are good.
After reading about airbag injuries, my interest in “self-driving” cars has increased greatly. A motor vehicle that will drive itself, so I can keep my hands a safe distance away from the steering wheel — preferably back in my sock drawer at home — sounds terrific.

If other alert readers have comments or experiences about this issue, please let me know. But remember, my tolerance for gross stuff has its limits.

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