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A Swift kick in the head--and chest, and arm--about your car's potential ''surprise'' safety systems

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On: Fri, Jan 2, 2015 at 3:12PM | By: Andrew W Davis


A Swift kick in the head--and chest, and arm--about your car's potential ''surprise'' safety systems

There is a special kind of sound that the human brain creates when it is instantly overwhelmed with a concussive force so loud and intense that the entire skull is hammered by it rather than just the eardrum.

At first, all external noise is drowned out, replaced by a deep, sonorous ring that pulses in painful intensity in time with your heartbeat. Then in comes a rich swirling noise, as though the contents of your skull are draining out of a massive wash basin. And then—if you’re lucky—the sounds actually occurring around you will slowly start to creep back in, with an effect not unlike wearing the best pair of noise-cancelling headphones ever invented with someone else in charge of the volume control.

Sound—pun intended—like fun? Well, go buy a 12-gauge shotgun, load it with a blank round, take it with you into a tiny metal shed, shut the door, and fire it at the ceiling. Or, if that sounds (again, sorry) too dangerous, just be in a car when an airbag goes off. Actually, that’s MORE dangerous, especially if you don’t know that it’s coming.

And believe me when I say this, depending on the age of your car, there’s a better than even chance you won’t…

Shortly after I purchased my Craigslist QX4 it dawned on me to check and see if it was one of the gazillion vehicles involved in the Takata airbag recall disaster. So with crossed fingers I went to SaferCar.gov, followed the “Infiniti” prompt and… my legendary automotive luck held yet again! [My bought-brand-new ‘01 Honda Odyssey was unaffected, too. Somebody likes me…]

But that got me wondering. Who made my airbags? Why were they unaffected? [Why do I care? I don’t know!]

Fortunately (only for me), I am an inveterate pack rat who has saved every bit of automotive ephemera he’s ever been in the vicinity of, and I just so happened to have the press kit Infiniti handed out to journalists when they introduced their newly-new-for-2001 QX4.

So I scanned down to the “Safety and Security” section and found… oh. Uh oh. This is… I mean, these things are... Don’t they have to tell you they put these things in there?!?

The sentence reads: “Dual front supplemental air bags [sic] and dual front seat side-impact supplemental air bags [sic], front seat belt pretensioners with load limiters [and] Front seat active head restraints”

Now I like to be as alarmist as the next non-alarmist, but seeing as how only that first bit is mentioned in the warning labels on the visors—and, so far as I knew, were the extent of the explosives hidden in my vehicle—I, naturally, immediately clambered into my QX4’s front seat and scrambled around looking for something—ANYTHING—that said “SRS” or the like on it that would alert me to the exact locations of all the tiny bombs that surrounded me and my front seat passenger.

But despite the fact that all that scary-sounding gear was in there somewhere, any even remotely scary labels were not. From the driver’s seat, in fact, all I could see a tiny black fabric tag—like the kind that tells you what size your T-shirt is, only smaller—sewn into the liner of the front passenger’s headrest. It read: “ACTIVE HEAD REST.” (Yes, that period is theirs).

So I climbed into the BACK seat and found a similarly-tiny black tag sewn into the left rear “shoulder” of the seat that read: “SRS AIRBAG” (Their underlining, not mine.).

And apart from the visors’ admonition to “Always Buckle Up”, there is no mention ANYWHERE about the "special" seatbelts, nor the rather important fact that they are hooked to explosive charges placed in the door pillars set to blow and jerk the belts tight against the front seat occupants when the sensor in charge of saying so does so.

[This highlights a point I forgot to mention in my Craigslist buying article: Owner’s Manuals. Granted, on the list of all the things you should make sure your prospective purchase isn’t missing, this one’s pretty far down the list. But, in situations like this—or, more importantly, when it comes to trying to figure out how to change a damn tire while knee-deep in slush beside a busy freeway—it’s an invaluable tool. If it doesn’t have one, get one via Amazon or eBay. Average price is eight bucks.]

SO, what does all this mean? Well, if I hadn’t done all this homework, as a complete and total surprise—given the right crash conditions—the airbag in the left bolster of my seat would have exploded upward at my left ear and forward against the back of my arm (there’s nowhere else for it to go).

Simultaneously, the B-pillar would’ve sounded with a shotgun blast as the seatbelt inertial reel jerked all the “slack” out of the belt in a race with the exploding airbag in the center of the steering wheel to, one way or another, force everything that was moving forward in the collision backwards. Like my internal organs. And my face.

All in, what… thirty milliseconds? On a slow day?

My wife’s mother’s driving scares the hell out of me for a lot of reasons, but her sitting so close to the steering wheel is definitely Top 5. Why? Because as an intrepid young automotive scribe I unwittingly participated in an unannounced (ha, ha guys) "safety demonstration" in which some engineers thought it would be funny to remotely detonate the airbags in a stationary car that I happened to be occupying. [Did I say that they didn't tell me it was going to happen? I cannot stress that enough....]

So I know from whence I speak when it comes to experiencing all the joys of sitting unprotected in an explosion-filled glass-and-metal box. [BTW, that deafness DEFINITELY does NOT prevent you from screaming expletives at people. You just can’t hear yourself doing it.]

Now, in THAT case, it was “just” the steering wheel and glove box door that blew up in my face. And as I was sitting still, I felt only the shock wave and heat of the explosion hit my face—and dust, and other particles of God-knows-what-else they put in there—rather than the hammer-blow of the bag itself, like you would in an actual crash.

But could they have wrenched my shoulder or broken my left arm and/or wrist if I was sitting in a QX4 at the time? It’s not unlikely. There is NO way to fit a six-foot-four-inch person into the relatively-tight cabin of a Pathfinder or QX4 that DOESN’T come out with their left elbow on the door armrest or sill and their left hand on the wheel, so there’s NOWHERE for the seat-mounted side airbag to expand into other than the space currently occupied by your shoulder/arm bones.

And I don’t know how full-on hangman-tight the belts in a QX4 get when the explosives go off, but I know enough from fooling around with the safety systems in Mercedes-Benzes and the like—which jerk the belts tight when you corner like a hooligan on a snowy bend—that NO part of being full-body garrotted is fun, from the python-like chest-squeeze to the neck-burning choke-hold.

It also begs the question: Exactly how hard is this process going to ring your bell? Well, let’s assume that the airbag doesn’t box your ear straight away—though it likely would. Will the blast from the seat-borne airbag charge be sufficiently loud enough to deafen your left ear or will you still be able to enjoy the additional explosion of the belt-tightener? I already know the sweet agony that comes with front airbag deployment, and seeing as how the explosives in the seat and pillar are much closer to one of your ear holes has got to make it that much worse.

[The “good” news, however, is that at least the sinister-sounding “active head restraint” is little more than a feature you might find on a fancy office chair. When your vehicle is hit from behind, the rearward movement of your weight against the seatback causes forward movement of the headrest, hopefully helping it meet your head somewhere between where it was and whiplash. When the pressure is released, the headrest resets. No explosives necessary.]

Anyhoo, there’s a joke that says the best advancement in the safety of automobiles would be the replacement of seatbelts with a giant metal spike in the center of the steering wheel. Now while that may be a little—or a lot—A Modest Proposal in flavor (ugh, that’s awful, even for me), it at least addresses the fundamental issue at hand: When you recognize danger you change your behavior. So go, right now, and research what’s in your car. Learn exactly what it does, and prepare as best as you can for the day that it’s gonna do it.

Or not. Maybe you like surprises. And the newer your car is, the more surprises there are in store for you when your car’s collision sensors go off. Just one word of advice: What comes out is NOT candy, though your head will feel like a piñata…

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