The mechanics of an airbag’s deployment might seem simple enough, but the instantaneous inflation of an airbag is just one small step in the many occurrences that transpire when a vehicle hits an object or another vehicle. Understanding where airbags fit into this timeline can help us to understand how injuries occur from airbag deployment and what changes need to be made to further enhance the airbag’s safety rating.
To understand how the airbag enters into the sequence of a vehicular accident, consider the four possibilities for collision and impact during a motor vehicle crash:
- The first part of the crash, obviously, is when the vehicle itself is impacted by another object. This first line of defense continues to be studied and improved by auto engineers. More than ever, vehicles are designed to crumple in such a way that the driver and passengers are kept as far away from this initial impact as possible. If everyone drove iron-clad vehicles, the resulting impacts would be off the charts. Much work still remains to be done in this first area of impact.
- The secondary crash occurs milliseconds after the collision described in #1: the occupants of the vehicle collide with the interior of the vehicle. Ironically, the airbag can be considered part of the interior of a vehicle when it is inflated and someone’s head hits it. When belted in, passengers obviously move toward the car’s interior at a much slower pace, lessening the impact of this secondary collision.
- Here’s a crash you probably did not think of: the smash-up that occurs as a person’s organs collide with his/her body wall, skeletal structure or cavity. Think of the impact that happens when the brain hits the skull, for instance. Such dangerous concussions do not occur only on football playing fields—they often happen in vehicle interiors as a crash unfolds. Again, airbags come into play. The jolt that a body receives as an airbag hits it can knock around all sorts of interior organs. People have had heart valves burst and brains rattled around due to airbags hitting their bodies, among other injuries.
- Another lesser-known collision occurs when objects within a vehicle hit the occupants after an initial crash. Hot liquids to the face, laptops to the head, pens in the ear—the possibilities are endless and more frequent than you might think.
Airbags were engineered to spring into action and minimize the impact of the collision described in point 2. The vast majority of time, this proves true. However, in that noble role of keeping the driver from hitting his face against the steering wheel or the passenger from smashing into the glove box, the airbag can also produce its own significant impact.
Research has shown that 96% of airbag impacts produce only minor injuries, but at the other end of the spectrum, they have been responsible for decapitation, heart ruptures and other fatal injuries. It is best to let a physician and lawyer determine if your injury from collision #2 above is minor or major. Not only can you be reimbursed for medical costs and lost wages, every case that makes it to court pushes automakers to improve their design of airbags.
For example, the inhalation of chemicals used in the inflation of airbags prompted a lawsuit in the United Kingdom after the driver died two months later. This has led to a reconfiguration of the elements used to prompt an airbag’s inflation, to everyone’s benefit.
The complicated chain reaction that must be perfectly sequenced for an airbag to inflate, then deflate, means that the process sometimes has kinks. If, for instance, a deceleration sensor is set too high on an airbag, then low-impact collisions will not cause the bag to inflate. On the other hand, if the sensor is too sensitive, then the airbag can inflate (and hit the unprepared driver or passenger) when even minor bumps occur.
Likewise, if the bag inflates too quickly, it will be deflating by the time that the driver or passenger hit it, which could result in more serious injuries and significantly decrease the efficacy of the airbag. Similarly, if the bag inflates a split second too late, it will produce maximum impact with a driver’s shoulder, for instance, rather than “giving” when the driver hits the bag. In short, the airbag is an extremely finely tuned instrument that can fall out of tune for any number of reasons.
Safety studies have demonstrated that seatbelts are the most effective restraints in vehicle crashes, and in countries where drivers and passengers regularly buckle up, road fatalities are low. Seatbelts do have shortcomings when it comes to the driver smacking against the steering wheel, one reason why the airbag was invented.
Airbags, for all of their occasional malfunctions, have been proven to have saved about 300,000 lives in the U.S. over the past four decades. They also greatly lessen the chance of severe facial injury and decrease the incidence of serious head injuries by 30+%.
Airbags are not, however, designed to be used instead of seatbelts. Many airbag injuries are caused when drivers and passengers do not have the decelerating force of a seatbelt restraining them as they are impacted by an airbag. Airbags were created and designed to work in concert with seatbelts, always.
Don’t let any driver or passenger tell you, “You don’t need a belt, this car has great airbags.” You are simply asking for trouble if you do not buckle up in a car with airbags.
The final score for airbags? Here are the results of one comprehensive study:
- Reduced skull/head injuries by 42%
- Reduced facial injuries by 70%
- Did not reduce injuries to the chest
- Increased injuries to the arms and right shoulder
Most people would gladly trade a separated shoulder for a skull fracture, and that is the essence of what an airbag can do. That does not mean, though, that any driver or passenger should simply accept a separated shoulder. The airbag manufacturer can be found at fault for many injuries suffered in collisions.
Car accident victims may be entitles to financial compensation for pain and suffering in addition to economic damages.Please consult an experienced Baltimore, Maryland car accident lawyer.