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As vehicles grow older, how safe are their airbags?

Aug 4, 2015

There are growing concerns over how the chemicals that deploy airbags age.
Credit Flickr user Mic / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

There have been at least eight people killed in accidents related to defective airbags made by Takata. The potential number of vehicles affected by these Takata air bags has been boosted to more than 32 million, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the watchdogs at NHTSA are keeping a wary eye on another safety issue brewing with airbags. What happens when airbags age?

The average age of vehicles on the road is more than 11 years old, and according to auto journalist and publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com Paul Eisenstein that's the oldest average age we've ever experienced.  

These vehicles' long years of service mean their airbags take a lot of abuse. From the bone-chillingly cold temperatures of winter, to the hot summer in the sun, airbags are submitted to extreme conditions.

While Eisenstein says there's no formal investigation into these elderly airbags, he says the head of the NHTSA recently told him that the agency is becoming increasingly concerned.

The worry stems from the older chemical explosives that deploy the airbag and the seals that are meant to direct the blast of air to the proper area. What happens to them when they age?

Eisenstein says some automakers have already told him they are looking into their airbag data.

"I think you're going to see as the Takata investigation continues, as other investigations open, there will be more and more of a focus to try to see if in fact older airbags may be as much a menace as a safety feature."

But even with these growing concerns, Eisenstein says this doesn't mean drivers should alter or disable their airbags.

Although there have been eight deaths from Takata airbags, Eisenstein says they have still saved hundreds or even thousands of lives.

"Are there some concerns? Absolutely. Could there be some dangerous ones on the road? Probably. Are they something that you should fear? No. The fact is your airbag is far more likely to save your life than do anything at all negative if there's an accident."