Defective Airbag Injuries
“Passenger safety” is still one of the big selling points in automobile marketing today, and airbags may well be the most important passenger safety feature developed in the past several decades. Yet, airbags are not all that safe. While they do save lives, airbag accidents, injuries and deaths occur with surprising frequency. Injuries can result from faulty design or manufacture, and in particular from defects that result in airbags deploying too early, too late or not at all. Injuries can also occur if the device deploys in a low-speed crash that would have caused no injuries, except for the airbags themselves through their sudden explosion and the chemicals that causes them to explode.
What Exactly is Personal Injury?
What to Do If You Suffer an Injury
Seeking medical attention is at the top of the list. Be sure that you or a loved one involved in any accident seek immediate medical help.
Next, try to secure the vehicle and preserve it for inspection by an expert in airbag mechanics and deployment. Consult an experienced attorney as soon as you can after the accident. An effective lawyer with significant resources to fight these cases can help you with the vehicle preservation and with finding and retaining the necessary experts.
Airbag Defects as a Cause of Accidents and Injuries
Given how complicated airbags are, and how many vehicles on the road have them (177 million in 2006), airbag defects are bound to cause accidents and injuries. An airbag that does not deploy when it is supposed to can cause more damage than those that do deploy.
It is likely, as several studies have shown, that more people are injured or killed from defects causing the airbag not to deploy than from faulty deployment. In fact, a detailed study in 2007 by the Kansas City Star newspaper reported that over four times as many people in a six-year period suffered injuries or death by the airbags’ failure to deploy as by faulty deployment. The defect that causes the failure to deploy can result from many causes, including faulty parts, faulty installation and faulty design. In addition, airbags are not a complete panacea; even when deploy as they are supposed to, airbags still injure and kill thousands of people.
Airbag Operation During Accidents
Injuries can be caused by how the airbag reacts in an accident and whether or not it adjusts to the size, weight and position of the occupant, and to the position of the seat.
Because airbags can deploy at speeds as high as 200 mph, the potential for injury is great. If an airbag deploys too early or too late it can result in serious injuries. If the occupant comes into contact with an airbag that is still inflating, that occupant is hit with an object traveling at up to 200 mph. If the occupant is thrown into a bag that is already deflating, that occupant may hit the vehicle’s interior instead of the fully inflated airbag.
Various factors affect deployment of advanced airbag systems (installed in all 2006 and later models), which can create the risk of accidents resulting from system failures or defects. Some of these factors include:
- Position of the seat. The position of the seat on the seat track can affect how soon, or late, an occupant comes into contact with the airbag. Therefore, sensors should adjust the speed of the deployment to match the seat’s position. If the sensors don’t operate properly or if not enough sensors are installed, injuries can be severe.
- Occupant position and weight.Where an occupant is sitting in a vehicle, whether middle, the side, or leaning forward, and how much that occupant weighs, will also affect when and how the occupant will come into contact with the airbag. Sensors should adjust for these circumstances, but indicators are not foolproof. For instance, a lighter person holding a bag of groceries could give the sensor false information about the occupants’ forward-moving velocity.
- System failure. Sensors may also detect and make adjustments for the speed at which the vehicle is traveling, the angle of the crash, the speed at which the vehicle decelerates, and whether the occupant is wearing a seat belt. Not wearing a seat belt could cause the occupant to move forward too quickly during the initial deceleration and end up on top of the still inflating airbag, which could lead to death or serious injury. Severe injuries can result from inadequate system designs, incomplete or hard-to-find warnings from the manufacturer, or failing sensors.
- Design of airbag module. The shape and size of the opening of the module can affect deployment, and because the NHTSA only mandates general standards, specific design features are up to individual manufacturers. The manufacturer’s choice of design could lead to unnecessary injuries.
- Tethering and inflation volume.How the airbag is tethered affects how far into the interior of the car it deploys (this distance is also known as the bag’s excursion). The tethering and the inflated volume of the airbags, which can vary by manufacturer, may affect whether an occupant is injured during an accident. Injuries may be the result of systems that do not take account of different types of occupants or occupants’ positions (because of design or parts failure, for example) or may be the result of a manufacturer not giving proper warning about potential systems failure.
- Folding. How the airbag is folded will affect deployment speeds and force during a crash. Injuries may be caused by how an airbag is, or is not folded.
- Material inside the airbag. The material the airbag is made of can affect whether or how an occupant is injured by striking it. Lighter material is better and injuries may be prevented by using appropriate material.
- Angle of airbag deploymentInjuries can be affected by the angle of deployment, with more vertical deployments often being better than horizontal ones. Also important is whether the airbag has lateral-bias flaps, which could direct an airbag to the side if it strikes something while inflating. For drivers, the angle of the wheel may direct a bag higher or lower on a driver’s body. Keeping it away from the head and neck is usually better.
- The rate of deployment. The rate at which the airbag deploys during an accident, which may be different for occupants of different weights or for different seat track positions, can affect whether an occupant is injured. Design flaws, improper inflation, faulty information about the occupants or their seat position can all be causes of serious injury and even death.
- The threshold of deployment.The thresholds at which airbags deploy and the speed and force with which they deploy may vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. If these systems do not work correctly or if they were not designed properly, the risk of death and injury is magnified.
- Venting. How the airbag vents after deployment might determine whether an occupant strikes a fully inflated bag or not. This critical element could lead to an injury because of poor design or defect.
- Sensor design. To detect as many variables as possible, some sensors use optical, infrared or electric fields to better gauge deployment. However, the number and type of sensors used by a vehicle manufacturer are different (even across different models) and could also be a determining factor in when and how an airbag is deployed. Defects from inadequate or poorly designed sensor systems can result in accidents.
- Limited-purpose of design.Airbags sometimes do not work well in certain accidents, such as when a vehicle hits a pole or tree, when a car goes under a truck or in certain frontal collisions where the deceleration might not be sudden enough to trigger deployment. Also, airbags might not be as effective in rear-end and side impacts and in rollovers. In these cases, improper or inadequate warnings, lapses in design, or faulty equipment can lead to injuries and deaths.
Airbags are part of a passive restraint system, designed to be used in conjunction with seat belts. Even with occupants wearing seat belts, however, airbag accidents occur. California ranks third in the nation in seat belt use, according to recent government data, with 93.4% of drivers using them regularly. The nationwide average is 81%. Since 1987, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) reports that 22,466 lives have been saved by airbags. Yet, the NHTSA reports that since 1990, 284 airbag-related deaths have occurred.
As injuries have increased, the NHTSA has responded by requiring automobile manufacturers to install “smart” airbags, which were designed to adapt to a variety of occupant sizes and positions, as well as to different vehicle speeds and crash angles. However, even after these standards were implemented, defects, related to design and manufacture, still are responsible for many catastrophic injuries.
How Airbags Work in Accidents
Airbag deployment is the last in a chain of events triggered by the sudden deceleration of a vehicle. Injuries can be caused by a failure of any link in this chain or by a poorly designed chain.
- Sensors. First, a sensor (or sensors) detects a sudden deceleration or crash, at speeds anywhere between eight to eighteen miles an hour. Sometimes the sudden deceleration can be detected at speeds upwards of twenty-five mph. Sensors are not designed to trigger an airbag deployment merely from severe braking. Sensors are located in the front of a vehicle, in the passenger compartment, in a door, doorsill or pillar and can be designed to measure deceleration from several angles.A number of studies suggest that single sensors can misread the need for deployment (if a crash occurs at certain angles, for example), causing an airbag to inflate too early, too late or not at all. Some manufacturers install more than one sensor and some even have back-up sensors in case of failures.Faulty sensors or even too few sensors could be the cause of an airbag-related injury. A California airbag failure lawyer with the experience to know what to look for, and the resources to employ experts to investigate such events, is vital for successful prosecution of cases arising from faulty sensors.
- Electronic Control Unit. Once a sensor detects the deceleration for which it is designed, it sends a signal to an Electronic Control Unit (ECU), which itself alerts an inflator within the airbag module. The ECU is like a “command center” and is usually located in the middle of the vehicle for maximum protection. In advanced systems, the ECU processes other information from sensors, such as occupant weight, seat position (forward or back on the seat-track), and whether a seat belt is being used. These factors may affect deployment, speed of deployment and even the force of deployment.
- Chemical reaction and inflation.Next, an igniter triggers an enhancer. The enhancer ignites a propellant, which in turn causes a chemical reaction that produces a gas that goes through a filter on its way to inflating a folded bag. This whole process is measured in milliseconds – less than the blink of an eye. The gas is most often argon or nitrogen (which often produces a rash on occupants who come into contact with the airbag). The manner and speed at which the airbag deploys during an accident can depend on a variety of factors, and can cause injuries. Side airbags tend to inflate more quickly because occupants are closer to the side interior of the vehicle than they are to the front. The smoke that is seen when an airbag deploys is likely talcum powder or corn starch, which helps the bag unfold, and is non-toxic.
- Deflation. The airbag deflates instantly through vents in the fabric. The entire process should take less than one second, so occupants’ movements should not be restricted after a crash (except with some side airbags, which may remain inflated for a few seconds to help protect occupants in case of a rollover accident). Airbags cannot be reused after they have fully deployed, so one should not drive a vehicle in which an airbag has deployed until the bag has been replaced by someone authorized to do so.
Airbag failure lawyers with technical knowledge of complicated airbag functions will usually know how to investigate the details of your accident. Your attorney should also, where appropriate, scrutinize the manufacturers’ specific airbag designs, its installation, its record of defects and its response to other accident cases.
Airbag Injuries and Testing Have Dictated Changes in Technology
Over the years, advances in technology have lead to changes in the way airbags are manufactured and used. The following are the types of airbags now in use:
- Frontal Airbag ProtectionThe first airbags were frontal only. They were in modules located in front of the driver, inside the hub of the steering wheel. Later they were added in front of the front-seat passenger, behind the dashboard. Starting with the 1998 model year, all passenger cars (and with the 1999 model year all SUVs, pick-ups and vans) were required by the NHTSA to have frontal airbags. By the 2007 model year, all light vehicles were required to have advanced frontal airbags. These advanced designs are supposed to take account of more factors-such as weight and position of the occupant. However, because the NHTSA requires only that certain general safety standards be met, vehicle manufacturers are free to offer airbags of varying design as long as they meet the minimum safety standards; thus, not all airbags are created equal.
- Side and Roof Airbags. Vehicle manufacturers have also offered optional side and roof airbags over the years, as well as side-curtain airbags. Unlike frontal airbags, which are not designed to protect occupants from injuries in rollover accidents, rear-end collisions or side impact crashes, side airbags are often designed to offer additional protection from injuries for such accidents. However, these airbags, too, can cause injuries for some of the same reasons discussed above.
- Side Airbag ProtectionSide airbags are usually of three types: those that protect the head, the chest, or the head and chest. Side bags which are supposed to protect primarily the head are most often mounted in the roof rail above the side windows. They are usually designed to protect an adult’s head in a serious side-impact crash. These airbags can offer protection in the form of tubular bags, or as a curtain. The curtain is generally meant to help protect rear and front occupants in a rollover accident. Side airbags, designed primarily to protect adult passengers’ chests, are mounted inside a seat or in a door. Those designed primarily to protect an adult’s head and chest from injuries are usually mounted on the side of a seat and are generally larger than a chest-only side design.
Avoiding Airbag Injuries: Government Regulations of Manufacturers
Airbags are intended to prevent occupants from pitching forward or hitting the vehicle interior when the vehicle in which they are riding goes through a rapid deceleration, which is what happens when a car or other vehicle crashes. The NHTSA has issued regulations to make airbags safer, but these regulations do not require manufacturers to use specific designs. They only require that relatively broad safety standards be met. This means that even if a vehicle manufacturer has complied with the safety standards, it is still possible to establish legal claims against the manufacturers and others resulting from design or manufacturing flaws, mistakes in installation and inadequate warnings.
Keep in mind that your airbag may not offer the latest technology. The type of design in your vehicle will depend on the year of your vehicle’s model and on how your vehicle’s manufacturer adapted its designs to meet federal safety standards. The specific design that your manufacturer uses may be responsible for your particular injuries.
Choosing the Right Airbag Accident Lawyer
In an accident, poor design or operation may be at fault. Different standards may apply to determine liability in such cases, and consulting airbag failure lawyers with experience in a broad spectrum of personal injury litigation and the resources to handle your case properly is vital. Without the necessary experience, resources and skill, some attorneys may not pursue all claims and compensation available to you.
If you have suffered an injury, you may be able to recover financial compensation for your pain and suffering, medical bills, rehabilitation, lost wages or income, and property damage. Because of the complicated nature of airbag accidents, you should only consider a well-established, well-staffed and well-financed personal injury law firm to handle your claim.
The attorneys at the Reeves Law Group have successfully handled thousands of personal injury cases. We have the resources to finance the handling of airbag accidents, and to utilize the services of medical, economic and engineering experts to determine the cause of the accident and the extent of your damages.
If you desire a case evaluation, please contact us by calling our attorneys at (213) 271-9318 or emailing us at Contact@RobertReevesLaw.com.
[Written by Derek Pakiz. Article updated on 2022-11-28]