Vehicular Ambush – Airbag Deployment Vulnerabilities

If you are a person at risk of kidnap then you should give some thought to the type of vehicle you drive and its susceptibility to being neutralised whilst on the move.

If you have read my book “Keeping Safe in a Dangerous Place”, or have taken professional instruction in kidnap prevention, or participated in an anti-ambush driving course then you will be aware that a significant number of kidnappings are vehicle based i.e. you are ambushed when travelling in your car.  This is often within 500 metres of your primary locations such as your home or place of work.

I don’t really raise the issue of airbags in my book; at least not in the context of someone ramming your vehicle or causing a low speed crash that may cause the airbags to deploy, potentially rendering your vehicle inoperable. Hence this article!

Every vehicle is different and the safety mechanisms built in to them also range from manufacturer to manufacturer.  In the event of a collision and airbag deployment, some cars will automatically cut off the fuel in case of fire; some will also have a small pyrotechnic that severs the battery connection that cuts off most of the electrics; some will also unlock the vehicle’s doors to make it easier for first responders to assist you.

As I am sure you are starting to realise, these safety mechanisms can be the flaw in your protective security plan.

All vehicles have at least front air bags, one for the driver and one for the passenger. More often than not you will also find that you have side airbags, knee airbags and also some in the rear for other passengers, and possibly some for the eventuality of the car rolling.

On impact, not all airbags will deploy. The airbag computer evaluates various data such as speed of deceleration, force of impact and area of impact, and only the relevant airbag for that part of the car will activate.

Also, the impact speeds for airbag deployment are not universal. What do seem to be universal are the minimum and maximum thresholds. No airbag should deploy on an impact of less than 8mph, and should only deploy on an impact above 14mph. If you have an impact between 8 and 14mph then it will depend on the vehicle and specifics of the crash as to whether the airbag(s) will trigger.

However, the above speeds were calculated based on an impact into a non-moving object such as a concrete barrier. If your car hit an object that moved with the force of impact such as another vehicle or a crash barrier then you can have a collision at a higher speed than specified before the airbag will deploy. Also, note that some cars in later years have a minimum impact threshold of 18mph. This is because it was realised that airbags deploying at lower speeds are more likely to cause injury than if they had not deployed at all.

It is essential that as an “at risk” person you find out from your vehicle manufacturer what the criteria are for airbag deployment, and which other safety mechanisms are automatically implemented.

We know that in an ambush situation the kidnappers will be fully prepared with superior numbers and weapons, in an area that will maximise their strength and your vulnerability, and at a time of their choosing. They will want the element of surprise. You most likely will be unaware. They will aim to shock you into submission. Driving in front of you and then conducting an emergency stop so that you drive into them at a relatively slow speed, but fast enough to deploy your airbags, is a perfect way for them to shock you into submission.

Find out about the car you drive. If for example you are rear-ended will the driver’s airbag deploy, and if not, which ones will? Will that result in the fuel being cut off, the battery being disconnected and the doors opening?

On some cars following an airbag deployment, to re-engage the fuel line you just need to turn the ignition off and on again. In an ambush situation you must be prepared to do that, so that you can drive away as quickly as possible. If you know that your doors will have unlocked then know to relock them immediately. If the battery is disconnected by pyrotechnic means then it is very unlikely that there will be a way to drive your car out of the ambush.

Be familiar with all the instruments of your car. Talk through in your mind various contingencies for your specific vehicle, “if I have an impact to the right of my car then the fuel won’t be cut off but the doors will open, so I will lock doors and drive away” or “If I have a frontal collision due to the action of the car in front and the airbag deployed I will re-start the car, lock the doors and drive around the ambush.”

Obviously there is much more likelihood of being involved in a genuine accident than a kidnapping. You will need to determine the situation very quickly; quite possibly whilst in shock. If you are an “at-risk” person then you should have received training. As a minimum you can read my book which will give you a lot of insight about keeping safe against general violent crime in the street, in your vehicle, at home, and on public transport, and also about how kidnappers will plan against you and what you can do to detect it.

If you have been on a driving course and learned how to shunt a vehicle that is blocking you, then understand that in a modern car with airbags you may not be able to successfully conduct such a manoeuvre without activating the safety mechanisms; it will depend on the speed of impact, the area of the car you have struck with and other influencing factors. In such high-risk cases it is advisable to have a safety mechanism bypass switch fitted to your car otherwise your brave act will in most cases be very self defeating.

Some manufactures such as Audi have designed special features to their bonnets so that if you hit a person or an animal the bonnet raises up to reduce the dangerous impact to the person or animal you struck. If you have such a feature you must know what impact speeds trigger it and whether your car will still be drivable.

If you travel in an armoured car then again, make sure you know what safety mechanisms are active. Armoured cars are extremely expensive. If an attacker did his due diligence and knew that all he had to do to get you out of your very expensive armoured car was to cause a small accident then the investment you made in your car’s security is wasted.

As usual, if you have any security related questions then feel free to ask. For awareness and tactics in detecting and avoiding dangerous situations then please see my book Keeping Safe in a Dangerous Place!

Keep safe, Oscar Leon

Article Name
Vehicular Ambush - Airbag Deployment Vulnerabilities
How thieves, attackers, kidnappers or assassins can use the safety features of your car to aid their ambush of you!

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