Airbags are inflatable cushions built into a vehicle in order to protect its occupants from hitting the automobile’s rigid interior in the event of a crash. In road cars, airbags are typically stored inside the steering wheel. They inflate with nitrogen gas when the car’s sensors detect a significant collision. According to statistics, airbags have saved more than 50,000 lives in the United States alone since their introduction in 1987.
While seatbelts do a good job of slowing down a person’s momentum at the time of a crash, the airbags are inevitably responsible for crushing the motion. If airbags provide such safety, the question arises, shouldn’t the fastest cars on the planet be equipped with them? After all, they are vastly more susceptible to high-speed collisions.
The answer to that question is quite complex. While airbags were initially considered by F1 in the mid 1990s to improve safety, they were concluded to be redundant and counter-productive. Instead of airbags, a new device called the HANS (Head and Neck support) was introduced. HANS was developed by Dr Robert Hubbard of Michigan University. The HANS device was found to be most effective in saving a driver’s life. But why were airbags not practical?
Related: Alessandro Alunni Bravi Net Worth, F1 Salary, Wife and more
1) Hindering extraction
One of the main reasons for the airbags impracticality was the fact that it trapped the driver inside. When a collision takes place, the driver’s first instinct is to extract themselves from the vehicle in case it catches fire. The airbag would have seemingly blocked the already narrow exit path for a driver, making it difficult to get out of a dangerous situation. Another reason was the intricate design of the modern Formula One steering wheel.
2) Sensor malfunction
Traditionally, the steering wheel houses the airbags in a deflated state. Owing to the complex nature of the steering wheel, it would be impossible to store an airbag in it. Also, the sensors might malfunction, or be triggered by a light collision which is not life-threatening. Such situations can result in the airbag being triggered even while driving at a speed of 200mph. This would block a driver’s vision and not only be dangerous to him but also to other drivers on the track.
3) Existence of redundancies
Lastly, the world class seatbelts used in Formula One cars make the use of an airbag absolutely redundant. Airbags are used to soften the collision when a driver’s head and chest are pushed into the steering column due to herculean decelerating forces. F1 seatbelts are six-point units meant to handle impacts that exert up to 1.5 tons of force. These seatbelts restrict movement in the cockpit to such a degree that any motion of the torso is impossible. Therefore eliminating the need for airbags altogether.
The drivers are protected in the cockpit by the HANS device as well as the seatbelt system. The HANS device is a type of head restraint. Devices such as the HANS have shown to reduce the likelihood of head and neck injuries, including the often fatal basilar skull fracture, in the event of a crash. Safety innovations in the recent years such as the HANS and the Halo have saved countless lives since their introduction. F1 and the FIA continue to take major steps in order to increase safety and prevent casualties in the pinnacle of motorsport.
In case you missed it: