In 1969, the new trend in driving safety was air pillows. Those pillows stayed around but their name changed, and no wonder.
An airbag is no pillow, but while a deployed airbag is not a comfy experience, it remains a landmark of safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that airbags have saved 44,869 lives from 1987 to 2015.
According to Popular Science, in a head-on collision, a car stops fast, but the bodies inside the car don’t. The momentum of the bodies inside continues until the windshield, dashboard or steering wheel brings them to a stop – usually with dire consequences.
The idea of an airbag is not just to pillow the blow, but to lower the impact by spreading it over a larger area of the body. No single area of the body bears the brunt of deceleration, according to Popular Science.
To accomplish this, airbags deploy within 1/25th of a second of impact, filling the nylon airbag with nitrogen and instantly deflating. Tiny holes in the bag begin releasing gas the moment a driver’s head hits the bag, absorbing the impact. This is why the driver’s head doesn’t hit the bag and then whip backward.
A white puff of cornstarch might also come out of the bag. The cornstarch keeps the bag supple while it is in storage. Newer cars have airbags with silicone coatings that make the cornstarch unnecessary. Because airbags stop the body, they prevent deadly head injuries and whiplash. But they do sometimes cause red impact burns on the body and break eyeglasses.