When a consumer buys an airbag-equipped vehicle, they expect the airbags to deploy properly in the event of an accident. Thousands of lives have been saved by airbags; however there has been a shocking increase in the number of injuries and fatalities caused by various airbag systems. Over the years, there have been many technological advances, yet airbag failures continue to occur. In many cases, airbag malfunctions take place in low to moderate-speed accidents where the excess force of the deploying airbag is responsible for the injury and/or death. Other significant airbag malfunctions include failure to deploy and deployment at the wrong time.
Development of the airbag began in the early 1950’s. GM, Ford, and Eaton Corporation were among the pioneers of crash testing to evaluate the airbag. On April 1, 1989 the United States government required the installation of airbags in the production of all new automobiles.
The typical components of a modern airbag system include; crash sensors, a gas generator, an airbag, and a diagnostic module. Some airbag systems also consist of a switch that deactivates the passenger side airbag. Crash sensors are designed to detect a collision by measuring sufficient deceleration of a vehicle. Gas generators instantaneously produce a high volume of gas in order to fill up the airbag and provide a cushion for the moving occupant. The stored airbag becomes fully inflated by the gas in about 30-to-40 milliseconds. Diagnostic modules monitor and confirm the readiness of an airbag system’s components. They processes information and in the event of a moderate to severe crash, they will send a signal to the inflator inside the airbag to inflate.
The majority of the victims of airbag malfunctions consist of short-stature drivers and children. The injuries and deaths of these occupants are often not the result of a faulty airbag. They are mostly due to the manufacturers poor airbag design. Driver’s side airbags deploy forward at 120 to 200 miles per hour and passenger side airbags deploy forward at 90 to 210 miles per hour. Airbags in both positions can impact the occupant with a force as high as 2000 pounds (nhtsa.gov). These airbags are termed overly aggressive airbags. They are designed and tested only for 50th-percentile adult male, about 5’9″ tall and weighing about 167 pounds. The built in danger is the failure of manufacturers to design and test airbags for smaller persons and children, as oppose to only for an “average man.”
According to the NHTSA, between 1990 and 2001, 133 child deaths were caused by airbags in low-severity accidents in which no other significant injuries would likely have been resulted. Of the 133 deaths, 111 were children between the ages of 1 and 11, and 22 of them were infants. In many cases, passenger-side airbags deploy horizontally and directly toward the child. In this case, the airbag is aimed directly at the child’s head or the back of the child’s car seat causing severe and fatal injuries.
Short adult drivers, especially women, have been severely and fatally injured by airbags. From 1990 to 2001, 82 adult deaths were caused by airbags (nhtsa.gov). Almost all of these deaths were women. Nearly 82% of the adult deaths were drivers while slightly more than 18% were front seat passengers.
The shorter the driver, the more likelihood of harm. The shorter driver sits closer to the steering wheel. A sitting position closer to the steering wheel than that of the 50th-percentile adult male, puts the driver in harm’s way should be airbag deploy. The airbag’s deployment being designed for a larger driver sitting further away, is to powerful for the smaller driver. The airbag’s deployment is so powerful that it has been known to break the occupant’s ribs and in turn tear their aorta, causing severe and fatal injuries.
In some cases, airbag failures occur when an airbag deploys at a time that it is not supposed to. The diagnostic module in an airbag system sends a signal to deploy the airbag when a sudden deceleration has occurred. This has proven to be a problem because a vehicles speed is not always a good indicator of whether or not an airbag should deploy. Many times, front airbags will inflate in a rollover or side-impact accident even though they are not designed to. This occurrence provides great potential for injury. In a rollover or side-impact accident, severe head injuries can occur as the occupant’s head can come closer to the airbag as it inflates. In other cases, airbags should not deploy in the event of a very moderate impact, such as when a vehicle hits a bump, pothole, or when a tire bumps a curb.
Airbag malfunctions also occur when an airbag does not inflate when it is designed to. Airbags are supposed to deploy when a vehicle decelerates at a predetermined rate. The majority of all airbag systems are designed to deploy in a collision at speeds above 20 to 25 miles per hour. If the airbags fail to inflate, the occupants will not receive the protection anticipated and may endure severe or fatal injuries. The non-deployment of a side airbag or roof airbag in the event of a rollover accident can determine whether a vehicle’s occupant lives or dies.
Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys has handled a number of cases against auto manufacturers wherein an airbag failed to deploy and that failure turned an otherwise minor injury accident into a catastrophic injury or death. In a recent case a women swerved to miss a dog in the road, lost control of her vehicle, hit a curb and then slammed into a telephone pole. The maker of the car, General Motors in offering to settle the case, did not dispute the airbag malfunction. Apparently, when the vehicle hit the curb the airbag sensing system considered the impact and decided it was not severe enough to deploy the airbag. When the car hit the pole, the sensing system had not yet rearmed itself to consider another impact. Thus the airbag failed to protect a wife and mother of four children. She died at the scene.
The leading cause of death and injury for Americans under the age of 35 is credited to automobile accidents. Airbag malfunctions can cause serious injuries and death. Severe whiplash, eye injures, blindness, abrasions to the face, chemical burns, fractures to the hands and arms or wrists, degloving, partial decapitation, quadriplegia or death are just a few examples. The current standards, set by the NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Administration), are obviously not sufficient. There is far too high an occurrence of airbag failure. Crash tests often demonstrate the existence of airbag deficiencies; yet, manufacturers continually use inadequate or temporary modifications to save money at the expense of the vehicle occupant’s safety. It is essential to the safety of the American public that the NHTSA place more stringent requirements on airbag development and testing.
If you or a loved one have been injured by a defective or malfunctioning airbag, call me, John Bisnar, for a personal consultation at 1-800-259-6373.