"Hidden" Frontal Airbags

May 1, 2007

SUBJECT: Airbags

TOPIC: "Hidden" Frontal Airbags

OBJECTIVE: Given late-model vehicles to inspect, the rescuer shall be able to recognize the presence of, the location and the deployment zone of a "hidden" passenger frontal airbag.

TASK: The rescue team shall inspect various new and late-model vehicles to view the various passenger frontal airbag instrument panel designs including the increasingly popular "hidden" frontal airbag design.

This University of Extrication column is a pictorial tour of the interior of new or late-model vehicles with special attention focusing on the passenger frontal airbag and instrument panel area. A significant and seemingly silent change is taking place there that medical, fire, and vehicle-rescue personnel must be aware of. Through images, this subtle design change occurring in new vehicles will become apparent.

What We're Used To

There appears to be an alarming trend among automobile interior designers to do away with the standard passenger front airbag "blow-out" panel that we are all so very familiar with. Instead, it appears that designers are transitioning to what is dubbed by this author as the "hidden" frontal airbag. The typical passenger frontal airbag blowout panel on this 2002 Pontiac Aztek has lifted as the airbag deployed. This common design is what we're used to as responders to vehicle crashes.

The Minivan's Hidden Airbag

This Chrysler minivan has a hidden passenger frontal airbag. Rescue personnel must note that there is no airbag blowout panel. Just because the panel isn't there, doesn't mean that there is no airbag. Beware and stay clear of the airbag deployment zone - 20 inches from the instrument panel in this case.

The "ID" Is There, But The Panel Isn't

A close-up look at the instrument panel on the passenger's side of this minivan does reveal an airbag "ID." The words "SRS Airbag" can clearly be seen to the left of the far right vent. The problem at a real-world incident with this style of hidden airbag is that a rescuer might not realize that in fact an undeployed frontal airbag is present. Beware. It doesn't take a blowout panel to have a blowout anymore!

There She Blows

During a frontal collision, the minivan's hidden passenger frontal airbag begins to deploy from beneath the instrument panel upholstery. As pressure builds, the bag ruptures through at a pre-stressed horizontal seam and deploys rearward toward the front-seat passenger. It is obvious from this close-up view that the entire instrument panel trim in this area fails away to allow the hidden airbag to push through from underneath. There is no blowout panel but there sure is a big airbag there anyway. Beware

The "Active" Instrument Panel

General Motors uses the term "active" instrument panel to describe the design used on many Cadillac models. This style of instrument panel and dash is more aptly described by rescuers as a jack-in-the-box design. Note the lack of airbag blowout panel yet you know that since this is a late-model Caddy, there has to be one somewhere. You can clearly see the glove compartment but not an airbag blowout panel.

It Comes From Underneath

When this Cadillac was involved in a frontal collision, both frontal airbags did deploy. The driver's frontal airbag deployed to its full 10-inch inflation depth as expected. What one would not expect, however, is the results due to deployment of the passenger's frontal airbag. With an "active" instrument panel, the entire lid lifts up and the passenger frontal airbag pops out from underneath.

The Jack-in-the-Box Design

To the surprise of a rescuer who looked over and saw no airbag blowout panel while treating an injured passenger, a wrong move during an extrication could accidentally deploy the passenger frontal airbag concealed beneath the lid of the entire dash. Note how the top piece lifted and seemingly hinged open to allow the large frontal airbag to deploy from underneath. It reminds this author of the lid on a box of cigars.

Smooth and Clear

The instrument panel on this 2007 Nissan Sentra is a perfect example of the trend towards "hidden" airbags. It is obvious that there is no blowout panel here, although there is a full-size passenger frontal airbag between the ventilation outlets. Again, designers are objecting to the unsightly panel design and concealing the airbags out of sight but hopefully not out of mind for fire, medical, and rescue personnel.

Looks Pretty, But the Bag Is Still There Somewhere

This view of the passenger front instrument panel and dash area of a Lexus GX 470 SUV involved in a collision shows the glove compartment and some nice-looking simulated wood grain trim. Other than that, as a passenger, you are not supposed to notice anything else. A trained rescuer however, must be alert to the fact that there is a hidden airbag designed into this vehicle.

You and your rescue team should inspect various new and late-model vehicles to view the various passenger frontal airbag instrument panel designs including the increasingly popular "hidden" frontal airbag design. Become familiar with the hidden designs and condition yourself to always anticipate that there is a passenger frontal airbag present until proven otherwise.

RON MOORE, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a battalion chief and the training officer for the McKinney, TX, Fire Department. He also authors a monthly online article in the Firehouse.com "MembersZone" and serves as the Forum Moderator for the extrication section of the Firehouse.com website. Moore can be contacted directly at [email protected].

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