Racing is the most dangerous sport in the world. The probability of getting into a crash is super high, and every single crash has the potential to be fatal.
Even with the last 100 years of innovations, drivers are still in danger. So why don’t race cars have airbags? We will look at how safety features in race cars were innovated, from the roll cage to the helmet to even something as small as the rear-view mirror.
Why do race cars not have airbags?
When auto racing first started, safety was non-existent. Cars were unreliable, open-cockpit missiles, running around on primitive technology and skinny tires. Most of the effort went into making cars faster, and virtually no effort was put into making them safer. Racing was considered a calculated risk for the drivers, and death was an unspoken possibility. Every race could be their last.
The most dangerous sport has made everyday life safer for everyone worldwide. We can thank innovations in racing for almost all the safety features in our cars today. All it took was a bunch of horrific crashes for us to learn. Rear-view mirrors are crucial for defensive driving and staying aware of your surroundings.
Race cars don’t have airbags among all these innovations striving towards the safest vehicle possible. There are two different approaches to safety that fill two different needs. To understand why race cars don’t have airbags, you must understand those needs.
Race cars have different safety needs than passenger cars meant for the road. Comfort isn’t a big concern in a race car because it’s all about going fast, but comfort is a massive concern in road cars.
- The main reason for airbags is to stop the head protected by a helmet and chest.
Airbags need to be deployed in a crash to ensure that the only things people hit are relatively cushioned in a racing car. The drivers are so tightly strapped down using a six-point harness and a helmet combined with head and neck support or hands for short.
These do such a great job of reducing head movement that there’s no way a driver’s head would reach an airbag. Even if it did, the airbag would probably have to be so big that it does more harm than good. With steering wheels being so complex, where would it even fit? What about protecting the elbows and knees mats?
There is no room for an airbag to go inside an F1 car. Sometimes drivers wear knee pads to prevent their knees from banging into the monocoque or each other, a type of airbag. Moving back to protecting the driver’s noggin, the current standards of F1 safety so well protect a driver’s head.
The more room you have in your car, the further your body will travel in the event of a crash. But that means there’s more time for your body to slow down, which is what passenger car safety features do. They slow your rate of deceleration.
The crumple zone is the first area of impact. It takes a lot of the force of the crash and slows the car down, dispersing the force over the whole car. As your body goes forward, the seatbelt restrains you while giving you a little slack to slow your body down. As your body moves forward, the airbag expands to meet your chest and face and absorb that impact, slowing your body down.
- A race car has most of these features, but heavy-duty versions deal with the extra force of going 200 miles an hour.
- Race cars have crumple zones that help disperse some of that energy, but that’s where the two diverge.
The biggest difference is the space between the driver’s seat and the steering wheel. Race cars are built for speed, with driver comfort being less important. If the cockpit had more space, that would directly impact the weight and aerodynamics of the car. So the cockpit is engineered to be as compact as possible.
- Racing harnesses are designed to restrain a driver much more than a regular seat belt, plus the HANS device. It is all to say that the driver is not moving much. So if an airbag went off, it wouldn’t do its intended duty and slow the driver down.
- An airbag would probably make driving an F1 car more dangerous.
Drivers often hit curbs and get in small accidents but keep driving as if their car is fine. The truth is minor impacts could set that airbag off, obstructing the driver’s view when they might need to get out of the way. Then they’d probably need to stop and replace the module, costing them precious time on the track.
If a driver crashed and the airbag went off, it would also make it harder to undo the harness and get out of the car in a fire.
Learn more about cars:
“The Global Automotive Airbag Market Outlook.” Valient Automotive Market Research.
Bellis, Mary. “Who Invented Airbags?”.
Warner, Kenneth. “Bags, Buckles, and Belts: The Debate over Mandatory Passive Restraints in Automobiles.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law. 8 (1): 44–75.
“U.S. airbag history.” Luxury cars.