Are Old Airbags Safe?

There I was, explaining to my mom how I had just crashed the family Volvo 240 station wagon into a parked Corolla. "I couldn't have been going that fast, mom, the airbag didn't even go off."

"Ha! The Volvo doesn't have an airbag, it's too old."

I was a little shaken up by that announcement, thinking I had a cushy, nylon bag to keep me from eating steering wheel. What it means to me now is that I have no experience having an old airbag go off in my face.

This question of the safety of old airbags came up today in our question, "what do you do to a car just because you're an asshole?" Reader Takuro_Spirit had this to say.

Replacing an airbag equipped steering wheel for an aftermarket airbag-less one always rates high on my Jackie Chan MIND FULL OF FUCK Why Did You Do That? List.

ClayW expressed a natural concern.

I own a 1991 BMW 325i. It has a driver-only, first generation airbag. Basically, I have a 22 year old explosive aimed at my face that will go off if I hit someone.

I'm just throwing this out there: I might be safer without it.

Takuro_Spirit

You do realize the "explosive" is there to release a harmless gas that inflates the nice pillowy soft AIR FILLED CLOTH BAG to protect you from smashing your face on the steering wheel, dash, and windshield, right?

ClayW

There seems to be some debate about the safety of 15+ year old airbags, especially of the 1st or 2nd generations. Incidentally, BMW only installed a driver bag in one year of E30s to satisfy a federal mandate, so I can't even justify that it's part of a well-integrated system.

Anyway, most of the evidence is anecdotal. I'd like to see some hard data on old airbag safety/danger.

I myself am still in the clear, since I now drive an airbag-less '73 VW, but what about the rest of you?

We haven't found any hard evidence saying that they could do any harm to a driver by going off at random, and neither has Australia's Royal Automotive Club of Victoria, which has a detailed write-up testifying to the safety of old airbags.

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.

However, there are a number of components necessary to get an airbag to inflate at the right moment, all of which can fail. It seems to us like the worst that would happen is that the airbag would not deploy in a crash, but we don't have any hard data to back that up.

So, are old airbags dangerous? Do you have any evidence to prove this either way?

Photo Credit: Leslie Wong (airbag-less BMW Bavaria steering wheel pictured)