While airbags save thousands of lives each year, they also cause serious injuries and even death when they operate improperly due to a defect. During an accident, airbags are designed to deploy in a fraction of a second. This instant deployment requires incredible force and speed—up to 2,000 pounds of pressure released at 200 miles per hour. The combination of incredible force and speed is necessary to provide split-second protection for passengers; however, it can also cause serious injuries or death when an airbag deploys at the wrong time, fails to deploy all together, or as we have seen with Takata, malfunctions and shoots metal parts at the vehicle’s occupants.
How Airbags Work
Airbag systems are made of the bag itself, several sensors, and an inflation system. The bag is made of thin nylon fabric, so it can be folded and stored inside a vehicle’s steering wheel, dash, or side panel. The sensors are located in several places inside the vehicle and are closely connected with the Airbag Control Unit (ACU). The various sensors monitor brake pressure, side pressure, force of impact, and seat occupancy.
When a collision occurs, the ACU uses an algorithm to calculate whether an airbag should deploy and when it should deploy. Upon release, an initiator inside the airbag ignites a chemical reaction. Sodium azide and potassium nitrate react, creating a sudden pulse of hot nitrogen gas. Immediately after the bag deploys, it begins to deflate by releasing the nitrogen gas through small holes in the fabric.
Common Types of Airbag Failure
There have been several manufacturer recalls for vehicles with airbags that release at unexpected or unnecessary times. In 2008, Chrysler recalled 367,000 Dodge and Chrysler minivans due to unexpected deployment. In several cases, water from the vehicles’ air conditioner leaked onto the electronic chips that controlled the air bags,dangerously setting them off at the wrong time.
Timing is critical for the airbag to serve its purpose and protect a vehicle’s passengers. In some cases, improper timing has caused serious harm to travelers. Several factors can contribute to late deployment, including faulty algorithm issues, defective components, or ineffective sensor placement.
Failure to Deploy
In extreme cases, an airbag can completely fail to release. These instances are becoming increasingly common as airbags become more complex in design.
In most cases, manufacturers are responsible for injuries sustained due to airbag failure. Accordingly, legal relief against the manufacturer may be available for victims of airbag failure.
Passenger Size Safety Issues
Airbag-related injuries prove that one size does not fit all. A recent study has shown that standard airbags are more dangerous for taller and smaller travelers. Individuals taller than 6’3” are 5% more likely to sustain injury from an airbag during an accident; similarly, those shorter than 4’11” are at a 4% increased risk. An especially alarming problem is the number of child injuries and fatalities occurring from passenger-side airbags. Smaller individuals are more susceptible to the strong forces of airbag deployment.
Modern Airbag Safety Features
Today, airbags are being designed with advanced technology to take passenger size and posture into account. The sensors in these systems also measure weight distribution, seat position, and seat belt use. This helps determine whether the airbag should deploy with full force, partial force, or not at all.
Avoiding Airbag Injuries
There are ways that travelers can reduce their chances of being injured by airbags during an accident. Tips to avoid airbag-related injuries include:
- Always wear a seat belt.
- Sit as far back from the wheel as possible.
- Refrain from leaning forward.
- Tilt the seat back, to distance the steering wheel and the driver’s chest.
- Hold the sides of the steering wheel near 9 or 10 o’clock and 2 or 3 o’clock, so the driver’s arms are not in the way of the airbag.
- Place children under 13 years of age in the back seat.