Airbags can be lifesavers when they deploy correctly, do not shred, impact your body squarely, etc. However, the technology behind them has proven to be far more tricky than most auto manufacturers have anticipated, and the number of problems with airbags and the quantity of lawsuits that have resulted are numerous.
About 2.5% of drivers in vehicle crashes suffer a serious injury due to airbag deployment, according to a study done by the Oregon Health and Science University. For details on that study, click here.
Here are some facts that you need to know about airbags and the hazards that they can cause and create.
Common Problems with Airbags
• The sheer force with which they deploy can cause injury. A standard airbag deploys at 200 mph. Combine that with the deceleration of hitting another vehicle or object, and you have the prescription for a very powerful collision that has injured many a motorist. Both drivers and passengers have suffered from bruises, broken bones and concussions from deployed airbags.
• When an airbag fails to deploy, or to inflate as rapidly as designed, the driver’s body can be thrown against the steering wheel and dashboard, resulting in injuries to the chest and face.
• Airbags are designed to give an “average” person maximum protection in the incidence of a crash. What about those who are shorter, taller or heavier than the “average” person? Smaller drivers travel a larger distance before making contact with the airbag, increasing the force of the collision. Taller drivers have airbags hit them squarely in the chest, sometimes causing broken ribs and damage to internal organs. The overweight? They sometimes get trapped in their seat when an airbag deploys, a predicament that can lead to great danger in the event of a vehicle fire, etc.
• Some airbags go off even without the incidence of a crash. Triggering mechanisms installed in vehicles can be overly sensitive, giving the driver and passengers a nasty jolt even when simply braking at a light. The element of surprise in these instances can increase the injuries sustained because the body does not receive a jolt of adrenaline to prepare it for impact. Another byproduct of this unforeseen inflation, obviously, is that it can temporarily distract or blind the driver, which can easily lead to an accident, especially in heavy traffic.
• Some airbags don’t deflate at all when the driver or passenger hits the bag upon impact. When the airbag does not lose any air, it can crush a driver or even suffocate him/her.
• At times, the dashboard light that comes on when there is a problem with an airbag can lead to all sorts of problems, most of them which cause an injury to the wallet. Mechanics have few ways to discover the source of these warning light issues so they often have to deploy the airbag. Refilling an airbag canister can be expensive. Other mechanics sell vehicle owners an entirely new bag, another outlay that runs into four figures. Still other creative mechanics insist that other parts of the car’s electrical system are causing the problem, telling customers that they need everything from a new clock spring to a new apparatus, all of which cost you money.
• Fortunately, some auto manufacturers become aware of problems with their airbags before many of the issues described above occur. However, recalls bring their own issues, including not having your vehicle for a given amount of time and auto dealers finding all sorts of new problems when you take your truck or car in for a simple recalled item to be adjusted or replaced.
For more details on the many standard problems with airbags, click here.
Now, on to less publicized problems with airbags. First, consider the health issues that can result from exposure to the chemicals within airbags.
Beware of the Air in Airbags
Airbags use an interesting mix of chemicals that almost no drivers are aware of, chemicals that can cause assorted health problems when inhaled.
Sodium azide is used to propel many airbags to inflation. When a crash occurs, this chemical ignites and decomposes to produce nitrogen gas, which then fills the airbag in about one-fortieth of a second at a speed of up to 200 mph. This initial chemical reaction that begins the super-quick inflation gives off an unusually high amount of heat as well.
In addition, sodium hydroxide is also produced by this initial reaction of collision force with the sodium azide. This chemical, as it rests on metal, can produce explosions when exposed to water. This is why some people who are impacted by airbags can spot a sleeve on fire or other material in their vicinity aflame.
This sodium hydroxide is not only flammable, but it is not good for your lungs. If you breathe in a large amount, you can have a coughing fit or asthma attack. For this reason, rescue workers who come to the scene of an accident involving an airbag are told to wear globes, safety glasses and to completely ventilate the car before entering it. After several minutes, the air should be safe enough to breathe.
For the unlucky person who is dazed after an accident and breathing in the sodium hydroxide, the injuries that s/he might have suffered will only worsen as a coughing fit jumbles broken ribs, for example. Other symptoms of exposure to this chemical include a burning throat, skin abrasions and minor burns.
In perhaps the most famous case involving the chemicals within an airbag causing serious health issues with a motorist, a driver in Scotland had his life first saved by an airbag, then died two months later from what he breathed in after the airbag deployed. After the airbag burst, a cloud of chemicals entered the man’s lungs, debilitating him to the point of death a short time later.
The driver reported seeing a white cloud after the airbag burst, and his face had redness, indicative of irritation from the chemicals. He fell ill very quickly after the accident, reporting a shortness of breath and frequent coughing spells. He was admitted to the hospital with these symptoms a few weeks after the accident, only to die about one month later.
His widow was convinced that the airbag was the culprit, and the forensic pathologist on the case reported that the victim’s lungs had indeed been infected and that he perished due to bronchial pneumonia. For details on this revealing case, click here.
Several years ago, General Motors did testing to know for certain what occurs to people who are exposed to the puff of chemicals that are released when an airbag deploys. This puff is comprised of gases and particulates, called effluent, which escapes through the airbag’s vents or fabric.
The General Motors tests involved a person sitting in the back seat of a car for 20 minutes with the windows rolled up after an airbag deployment. During this time, the person was monitored for any unusual physical symptoms. In one sequence, a volunteer fled the car soon after the cloud of chemicals was released. Others that had pre-existing conditions such as asthma did not fare well, either. The conclusion to the experiment was that if a person cannot exit a vehicle after airbag deployment, prolonged exposure to the chemicals released into the air can have quite serious consequences, especially for those who had breathing problems before their crash. For details on this study, click here.
A related concern that some researchers have is the danger of sodium azide when released into the air and impacting an environment. Some call this chemical a poison that can destroy entire ecosystems when dispersed in great quantities. This type of nightmare scenario could occur if a large amount of cars were placed in a junkyard, for instance, with undeployed airbags. The sodium azide would be resting in the container, and if several containers were punctured, the results could be quite hazardous to everyone and everything around.
Newer airbags no longer use sodium azide in their canisters, turning to the safer compounds of compressed nitrogen and argon gas. For more information on the hazards of the chemicals used in deploying airbags, click here.
Hearing Loss and Airbags
This is another under-reported hazard of airbags—what occurs to a person’s hearing when an airbag is deployed. One study says that up to 17% of people could suffer permanent hearing loss when an airbag deploys.
The study’s numbers might have been a bit high because only American-made vehicles were examined. These vehicles have larger and more powerful airbags than their Japanese and European counterparts.
Few people know that when airbags deploy, the sound can equal the decibel level of a jet at take-off. The noise emitted when airbags deployed was measured and gauged to determine the potential effect on a person’s hearing. One result of the study has been that auto manufacturers have worked to reduce this intense explosion of noise when airbags inflate.
No one wants to go back to the days before airbags became standard equipment in vehicles. More than 30,000 lives have been saved by airbags over the past two decades or so of their usage. However, it is equally wrong to accept the many injuries and nearly 100 deaths in the U.S. that have resulted from air bag deployments.
Accident victims have rights. You may be eligible for compensation for your injuries, wage loss and medical bills. Contact an experienced car accident lawyer now for a free consultation.