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Ishaya K. Akai
Department of Mechanical Engineering, Waziri Umaru Federal Polytechnic, Birnin Kebbi

ABSTRACT Every year automakers are engineering more safety devices into their vehicles because of the rate at which lives are lost in motor accidents today. So this paper is aimed at: explaining how vehicle body and frame construction works with restraint systems to protect a vehicles occupants; identifying and locating the most important parts of vehicle restraint systems; and describing the importance of restraint systems.

INTRODUCTION Restraint systems, otherwise known as safety systems, are installed in a vehicle to help hold its occupants in their seats, protecting them from injury during an accident. Restraint systems include the seat belts and the air bag system, as well as the vehicles body, frame, steering column, and dash board. Seat belts and air bags are required on all cars and light trucks. Therefore it is very important that we understand the operation, and if possible, the repair of these safety systems. Early vehicles were designed and constructed without taking restraint systems into consideration. Almost no feature of the interior design of these vehicles provided safeguards against injury in the event of collision. Doors that flew open on impact, inadequately secured seats, the sharp-edged rear-view mirror, pointed knobs on instrument panel and doors, flying

glass, and the overhead structure all illustrated the lethal potential of poor design. A sudden deceleration turns a collapsed steering wheel or a sharp edged dashboard into a bone-andchest-crushing agent. Penetration of the shatter-proof windshield can chisel ones head into fractions. A flying seat cushion can cause a fatal injury. The apparently harmless glovecompartment door of the early car had been known to unlatch under impact and guillotine a child. Roof-supporting structure had deteriorated to a point where it provided scarcely more protection to the occupants, in common roll-over accidents, than an open convertible. This is specifically true of the so-called hardtops. Nor were the automobile designed as an efficient force moderator. For example, the bumper of the early vehicle does not contribute significantly to reduction of the crash deceleration forces that are transmitted to the motorist; its function more reflects style than absorb shock. These weaknesses of early automobile construction were established by the investigation of several groups, including the Automotive Crash Injury Research of the Cornell University Medical College, the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering of the University of California and the Motor Vehicle Research of Lee, New Hampshire.

VEHICLE COLLISIONS Vehicle collisions, or accidents, normally result from driver error that causes the car or truck to hit other objects (vehicles, trees, retaining walls, etc.). Tremendous force is generated when the vehicle, which can weigh almost two tons, crashes to a halt in few meters (or feet) of travel. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 When a car or truck hits a large object, a tremendous amount of

energy is absorbed to bring the vehicle to a halt. (Daimler Chrysler)

Automobile manufacturers design their vehicles to absorb this force in a controlled manner. In designing vehicles to absorb the tremendous forces generated when a vehicle suddenly crashes to a halt, manufacturers incorporate crush zones and side-impact beams in the construction of their vehicles; and they ensure that before a new car or truck is sent to the market, they conduct crash tests using dummies to analyze the safety of its design. Crush zones these are usually located at the front and rear of the body-frame assembly; they are designed to collapse during a severe impact. The passenger compartment is made stiffer and stronger than these crush zones, so the occupants are protected from the forces of the accident. See Figure 2.

Figure 2 Crush zones are built into the front and rear areas of the vehicles body and frame.
These areas crush more easily than the passenger compartment, increasing occupant safety. Dotted lines show how the body deforms during a major collision. (Saab)

Side-impact beams these are made of high-strength steel, and mounted in the vehicles door to help prevent intrusion into the passenger compartment. The pillars (body sections that extend up to the roof panel and are located in front of and behind the doors) are also strengthened to protect the passenger compartment, especially in the event of a rollover. Crash tests these are conducted by the auto manufacturer to measure how well the bodyframe structure will protect the vehicles occupants in the event of a major collision. Vehicles are crashed into standing walls or other vehicles to measure how well the vehicles withstand and react to the impact forces. Crash test dummies auto manufacturers use them to measure the impact forces acting upon the human body. Sensors in the test dummy record the forces acting upon vital parts of the body. This allows the manufacturer to estimate how badly people will be hurt during similar crash conditions. Figure 3

Figure 3 A crash test dummy is designed to measure forces that would act on the human body during an auto
accident. Damage to the dummy indicates how badly people would be hurt in a similar accident. (Volvo)

Crash test are performed from the front, side, and rear of the vehicle. This allows the manufacturer to study the effects of major impact forces from each direction. These tests, though very expensive to perform, but are very important. See Figure 4.

Figure 4 Automakers perform extensive crash tests to enable the safety of new car and truck designs.
AFrontal-impact crash test. BSide-impact crash test. CRear-impact crash test. (Saab)

ACTIVE AND PASSIVE RESTRAINTS It has been briefly mentioned that restraints systems hold the driver and passengers in their seats during an accident. These systems are designed and installed in vehicles to limit injury during a crash. Most injuries result when people are ejected from their seats or from the passenger compartment upon impact. An active restraint system is that type of system that operates without being activated by the driver or passenger. Air bags and automatic seat belts are examples of passive restraint systems. Refer to Figure 5.

Figure 5 Modern vehicles are much safer than those produced in the past.
Besides strong passenger compartments, seat belts and air bags help protect the driver and passengers from injury during collision. (Saab)

SEAT BELT SYSTEM Seat belts are strong nylon straps that hold people in their seats during a collision. Lap belts extend across a persons lap. Shoulder belts extend over a persons shoulder and chest. Seat belt buckle allows you to engage and disengage the belt around your body. Seat belt anchors provide a means of bolting the seat belt to the cars body structure. Look at Figure 6. A belt retractor takes the slack out of the seat belt so the belt fits snugly around the body. Designs vary. See Figure 7.

A seat belt reminder system lights a dash light and generates an audible tone to warn the vehicle occupants to buckle their seat belts.

Figure 6 Note the basic parts of a seat belt assembly. (Honda)

Figure 7 This vehicle has automatic shoulder belts that are tightened around the body by small electric motors. Note the location of the retractors. (Honda)

KNEE DIVERTER A knee diverter, or knee bolster, is formed into the lower part of the dash to protect the drivers and front passengers knees from being injured on the metal frame of the dash. The diverter also prevents the driver and passengers from sliding under the air bag during a collision. It is usually a thick plastic panel that covers the metal frame of the dash. Refer to Figure 8.

Figure 8 This drawing shows the three primary restraint

devices: seat belt, air bag, and knee bolster (GM)

AIR BAG SYSTEM An air bag system automatically inflates large nylon bags immediately after the start of a major collision. The air bag system is designed to supplement the protection provided by seat belts. Figure 9 The major parts of an air bag system include:
Air bag sensor these are inertia sensors that signal the control module in the event

of a collision.
Air bag module it contains the inflator mechanism and the nylon air bag that

expands to protect the driver and /or passengers during the collision.
Air bag controller this is the computer that operates the system and detects faults. 8

Dash warning lamp this is a dash bulb that glows with system problem and goes

out when the problem is over.

Figure 9 An air bag can shoot at speeds up to 320 kilometres per hour (200 miles per hour).
This is fast enough to inflate the bag before the human body can fly forward, even in the worst auto accidents. (Saab)

An electronic air bag system deploys an inflatable nylon bag to help protect the driver during a collision. It uses impact sensors to detect a severe collision. The sensors feed their signals to the air bag controller. When at least two impact sensors are energized, the controller activates the air bag module. The air bag inflates in about 1/20th of a second, well before the drivers body flies forward from the collision. The tough nylon bag can easily absorb the forward inertia of a human body. This helps protect both the driver and the passenger.


Driver-side air bag this type of air bag is used in some older cars and is only

one, which is located in the steering wheel.

Passenger- side air bag many new vehicles are equipped with dual air bags: a

driver-side air bag and a passenger-side air bag. The passenger-side air bag

deploys from the right side of the dash. It is much larger than a drivers-side air bag, since it is relatively far from the passengers and may have to protect two persons simultaneously. See Figure 10.

Figure 10 The passenger-side air bag is much larger than other air bags.
It must be able to protect two people from striking the dash and windshield during a frontal impact. (Volvo)

The driver- and passenger-side air bags will only deploy during frontal impacts. Steering wheel and dash mounted air bags may not deploy in side impacts, rear impacts, or rollover situations. A collision must occur within about 30o of the vehicles centerline for these air bags to inflate. This is illustrated in Figure 11. Side-impact air bags they can be located in the door panels or on the outside edge of each front seat. They are smaller in sizes, compared to the drivers-side and passengers-side air bags. These small air bags deploy when the vehicle is hit from the side. They generally do not deploy during a frontal impact. Side-impact air bags are becoming more common and are used by several auto manufacturers. Figure 12


Figure 11 Drivers and passengers air bags will normally deploy if impact is within 30o of a vehicles
centerline. (GM Trucks)

Figure 12 Side-impact air bags are becoming more common. They help hold your body in the seat when the
vehicle is hit from the side. This unit deploys from the side of the seat cushion. (Volvo)

When a car is hit from the side, injury usually results when the occupants shoulder and head fly through the side window glass. A side-impact air bag system senses the side thrust of the impact and deploys a small air bag to cushion the person as he or she is propelled sideways. See Figure 13


Figure 13 Side-impact air bags normally use their own sensors to detect side-impact forces. The only deploy when the impact forces would tend to throw the body sideways and into the door. (Volvo)

Window air bags they are designed to drop down like curtains over the side window glass. This helps protect the occupants from head and facial injuries caused by impact with the door glass. Rear seat air bags they fit into the rear cushion of the front seats. They inflate to protect the passengers in the rear seat from injury during a frontal collision. Although not very common, the can be found in a few expense luxury cars.

AIR BAG MODULE The air bag module consists of a nylon bag and an igniter-inflator unit enclosed in a metal and plastic housings. The drivers-side air bag module is packaged in the centre of the steering wheel pad. The passengers-side air bag module is mounted under a small door formed in the right side of the dash pad. Look at Figure 14.


Figure 14 Cutaway (cross-section) shows inside of an air bag module. The

Air bag is folded neatly under the steering wheel cover. The air bag igniter Generates a small electric arc across two metal pins when an electrical signal is sent to igniter from the controller. The arc fires an igniter charge, causing the gas-generating pellets to burn. The burning pellets generate a rapidly Expanding gas that inflates the air bag. (Breed Automotive Corporation)

The air bag itself is a strong, reinforced nylon sack attached to the metal frame of the module. It is tightly folded for storage in the steering wheel pad, the dash, the door panel, or the side of the seat. See Figure 15. Air bag vent holes allow for rapid deflation of the air bag after deployment. These small holes are formed around the outer edge or back of the bag. The air bag igniter generates a small electric arc when an electrical signal is sent to it from the air bag controller. The arc forms across two small pins in the igniter charge. This flash of the igniter charge causes the gas-generating pellets to burn, generating a huge volume of expanding gas, Figure 15. The air bags propellant charge, or expanding gas, is usually produced by the burning of sodium azide pellets in the air bag module. The burning pellets form nitrogen gas, which inflates the air bag.


Figure 15 Line drawing shows the details of a common air bag module. (Toyota)

The large volume of nitrogen gas can inflate the air bag in a fraction of a second. This action forces the steering wheel cover to split open and the air bag shoots out at about 320kilometers per hour (200 miles per hour). This is fast enough to cushion the forward thrust of the human body as it flies forward after the collision. The air bag also protects the drivers or passengers heads from flying objects resulting from the accident. Immediately after the air bag is inflated, the gas is vented out the small holes on the sides or rear of the bag. This prevents the occupants from being pinned in their seats. It also allows the driver to see out of the wind shield right after deployment. Passenger-side and side-impact air bags are very similar in design. The passenger-side air bag is much larger than a side-impact bag and, therefore, requires more gas for proper inflation. An exploded view of a passenger-side air bag is shown in Figure 16.



HYBRID AIR BAGS A hybrid air bag uses a small explosive charge and a pressurised gas cartridge to inflate the air bag. The small, metal gas cartridge contains inert argon gas pressurised to 20,700 kPa (300 psi). When the air bag controller sends current to this type air bag module, it fires a tiny amount of pyrotechnic material (rapidly burning substance) that forces a plastic bullet through the gas cartridge. The cool pressurised argon gas then blows out to inflate the air bag, Figure 17. A hybrid air bag is designed to help prevent minor skin burns that can result from the hot nitrogen gas generated by burning sodium azide pellets.

MECHANICAL AIR BAGS All parts of a mechanical air bag system are contained in the steering wheel module. During a front-end collision, a metal ball in the module slams forward, striking a lever arm. The other end of the lever arm the pushes a firing pin into the igniter material. The igniter material burns, igniting the sodium azide pellets. The gas generated by the burning pellets quickly inflates the air bag. Mechanical air bags are designed for after-market installations. Older vehicles, which were not originally equipped with air bags, can be retrofitted with the mechanical air bag system to increase driver protection during an accident.

AIR BAG SENSORS Air bag sensors detect a collision by measuring vehicle deceleration during a collision. They are inertia sensors that detect a rapid change in speed or velocity. One or more sensors are commonly incorporated in air bag systems. The trend is to use fewer sensors than in the past.


Impact sensors they are mounted in front and, in some cases, on the side of a

vehicle to detect a collision. Front impact sensors are often located in the engine compartment, on or near the radiator support. Figure 18.

Figure 18 Typical locations of the air bag impact sensors. They are often mounted near the radiator support. (Ford)

Side impact sensors are mounted in the doors or in the B pillars (pillars behind the front doors).
A safing sensor or Arming sensor it is a back-up sensor designed to ensure that the

vehicle is actually in a collision. It provides a fail-safe system to prevent accidental bag deployment. For the inflation of the air bags, the safing sensor and at least one impact sensor must be closed. Figure 19.


Figure 19 note the basic circuit for air bag sensors. A safing sensor And two primary impact sensors are wired in series. This requires that the Safing sensor and at least one of the impact sensors be closed to fire air bag. (Ford)

Magnet-and-ball sensor this is used in some air bag systems as the impact sensor.

A small permanent magnet is used to hold a steel ball away from the electrical contacts in the sensor. During a severe collision, the rapid deceleration throws the steel ball forward, overcoming the force of the magnet. The ball rolls forward and strikes electric contacts. This closes the sensor circuit to signal the controller of a possible collision requiring air bag deployment. See Figure 20.

Figure 20 An air bag system sensor closes when exposed to rapid deceleration forces. This sensor uses a magnet to hold a steel ball. If impact is great enough, the steel ball is thrown away from the magnet and into the two metal contacts. This closes the circuit and signals the controller that the vehicle is in a collision. (Ford)

Coil spring sensors a coil spring sensor uses a small metal weight attached to a

metal coil spring. During a severe frontal impact, the weight is thrown forward with

enough force to overcome spring tension. This weight touches the sensor contacts and closes the electronic control module (ECM).
Seat cushion sensors they detect the weight of a person sitting in the passenger

seat. If no one is sitting in the passenger seat, the air bag system may not deploy the passenger air bag. This saves the considerable cost of replacing an air bag without it protecting someone.
Accelerometer sensor many late model vehicles are equipped with one central

accelerometer (inertia sensor) instead of separate impact and safing sensors. The accelerometer measures changes in motion or deceleration and is sometimes mounted in the air bag controller. Some accelerometers contain thin wafer of semiconductor material that is deflected and warped by rapid deceleration. The bending of the semiconductor produces a piezo-electric, or pressure generated electrical signal, that fires the air bag.

AIR BAG CONTROLLER The air bag controller or air bag control module uses inputs from the impact and safing sensors to determine if air bag deployment is needed. If at least one impact sensor and the safing sensor are closed, the controller sends a high current pulse to the air bag module. The pulse produces a small electric arc in the air module, igniting the pyrotechnic material to produce gas expansion and bag inflation. Figure 21 The air bag controller also generates trouble codes and energizes a warning lamp if it detects something wrong with the system. Refer to Figure 22.


Figure 21 General arrangements of the parts in an air bag system. Note the location of the controller. (Honda)

Figure 22 Diagram shows how the controller operates the air bags. Note that the controller has self-diagnostic capabilities and will generate a trouble code when an air bag system problem is detected. (Honda)

A smart restraint system uses additional inputs to affect the operation of the air bags. It uses conventional impact sensor inputs, as well as data from the seat sensors, side door impact sensors, yaw sensors, wheel speed sensors, seat belt sensors, and even collision-predicting sensors. This allows the smart system to adjust the speed and pressure applied to the air bags to better protect the vehicles occupants from injury. For example, a small child would require less air inflation pressure than a very large adult.


CONCLUSION The technology found in typical late-model vehicles helps to prevent thousands of highway deaths each year. Many high-speed accidents, which were often fatal in yesterdays lowertech cars, now result in only minor injuries. This improved safety record is primarily due to the superior structural body/frame designs and advanced restraint systems found in todays vehicles. Air bags, front and rear crush zones, stronger pillars, and reinforced passenger compartments have all contributed to improved vehicle safety. One most unfortunate thing is that drivers, who are ignorant of the importance of restraint systems, tend to destroy them or refuse to use them. Some developing countries, including Nigeria, are now enforcing the use of seat belt systems. This has tremendously helped to prevent thousands of deaths each year during accidents. At this juncture, I want to suggest to all vehicle manufacturers to ensure that restraint systems are installed in all vehicles produced today, and also plan total phase-out of vehicles without restraint systems by the year 2020. Enlightenment campaigns should be embarked upon by governments and vehicle manufacturers to educate people on the importance of restraint systems in vehicles. This would make them ensure that restraint systems are installed in any vehicle they want to purchase. SUMMARY Crush zones located at the front and rear of the body-frame assembly are designed to collapse during a severe impact.
Crash tests are used by the auto manufacturer to measure how well the body-

frame structure will protect the driver and passengers in a major collision. Crash test dummies are used to measure the forces acting upon the human body during a collision.


Seat belts are strong nylon straps that hold people in their seat during a collision. A knee diverter is formed into the lower part of the dash to prevent the drivers and front passengers knees from being injured on the metal frame of the dash. An air bag system automatically inflates a nylon bag immediately after the start of a major collision.
Most vehicles are equipped with a passenger-side air bag, which deploys

from the right side of the dash.

Side-impact air bags can be located in the door panels or on the outside edges of the front seats.

The air bag module comprises a nylon bag and an igniter-inflator unit

enclosed in metal-plastic housing. A hybrid air bag uses a small explosive charge and a pressurised container of gas to inflate the air bag. All parts of a mechanical air bag system are contained in the steering wheel module. Air bag sensors detect a collision by measuring vehicle deceleration. The trend is to replace several safing and impact sensors with one central accelerometer that measures changes in motion or deceleration.
A smart restraint system uses additional inputs to affect the operation of the

air bag system.


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