Government studies show that nearly 3.3 million airbags have been deployed in automobile accidents, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. They are also credited with preventing or minimizing personal injuries. However, car accident attorneys have seen many instances where these devices designed to save lives and prevent injury have caused fatalities and created severe secondary injuries.
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Deaths Caused by Airbags
From 1990 to 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 175 fatalities that were caused by airbags. 104 of these fatalities were suffered by children who had been positioned in the front seat and were subjected to the full frontal force of the airbag when it deployed. The remaining 71 fatalities were suffered by adults whose shorter stature meant that the airbag deployed at such an angle that it crushed the larynx or created blunt force trauma to the head.
This number is rising as airbags become standard equipment that is required within passenger vehicles. In 2008 alone, 92 drivers and 191 children were killed by air bags. That year, airbags were credited for saving 28,244 lives; the majority of survivors were also wearing their seat belts at the time of their accident.
Airbags are designed to deploy rapidly upon impact. This rapid deployment can cause a number of serious injuries, including:
- Strains or fractures to the cervical spine
- Bone fractures in the face, chest, shoulders, arms, or hands
- Concussions or loss of consciousness
- Lacerations to internal organs
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Trauma to an unborn fetus or a puncture of the placenta
If treatment is delayed for any reason, such as a injured party being trapped within a vehicle, these injuries can have life-threatening consequences.
How Airbags Operate
Airbags are deployed when sensors within the vehicle detect a sudden deceleration. These can be set for speeds as low as 8 miles an hour. While they are not intended to deploy due to sudden braking, there have been incidents where faulty sensors have triggered deployment.
Once the sensor detects a collision, it sends a signal through the Electronic Control Unit (ECU). This triggers the inflator within the airbag. In newer model vehicles, the ECU can also calculate the weight of the occupant, the seat position, and whether the driver/passenger is wearing their seat belt. This information is then used to calculate the appropriate speed and force of the deployment.
The triggering of the inflator ignites a chemical propellant that generates an inert gas (either argon or nitrogen) that fills the airbag. This process takes just a few milliseconds to complete.
The process is the same with frontal airbags and side-curtain airbags. However, side-curtain airbags tend to inflate with greater speed. This greater speed can lead to abrasions and fractures on the arms and hands.
Airbags are designed to deflate rapidly, often within one or two seconds. This allows drivers and passengers to exit the vehicle. However, if the sensors detect that the vehicle is still in motion or has rolled over, the airbag may remain inflated until the sensors detect that it has come to a complete stop.
Safety of Airbags Under Examination
Takata is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of airbags used in passenger vehicles. The company has come under scrutiny following the /16th confirmed fatality caused by the company’s faulty airbag inflators. It is estimated that up to 100 million of these devices were installed in vehicles manufactured by Honda, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota. Even after multiple recalls, car accident attorneys continue to represent vehicle owners who have been injured by these devices.
The most recent fatality occurred in Riverside, CA. The cause of the Takata airbag failures is the device’s design. In particular, the non-desiccated ammonium-nitrate inflator has a tendency to “go off” when it comes into contact with moisture. In high-humidity environments, the devices can trigger with no warning and when no accident has taken place. Moreover, the force with which the airbag deploys exceeds standard safety limits. This can cause serious personal injury even if the airbag deployment does not cause a collision with another vehicle or structure.
Factors that Can Cause Fatalities or Injuries
Airbag design is among the leading causes of airbag fatalities and injuries. The way the airbag is folded, the propellant within it, and the rate/force of deployment are the most common causes of fatalities and injuries. Additionally, the sensitivity of the sensors, inflation volume of the airbag, and size/weight of the occupant play a considerable role in determining whether an airbag deployment will injure or kill the occupant.
Anyone who has been involved in an automobile accident where an airbag has been deployed should seek immediate medical treatment. Small fractures and internal injuries such as bleeding or organ lacerations can go unnoticed for hours or even days following the accident.