Air Bag Deployment (or Lack of) Still Causing Problems


For as long as air bags have been in automobiles, they have saved lives, but, unfortunately, they have taken lives, also. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), from 1987 to 2005, it is estimated that air bags saved approximately 20,000 lives, but needless air bag deployments have seriously injured or killed thousands more.

Recently, a Florida woman crashed her 2003 Ford Windstar minivan into the passenger side of another car while going 50 mph and her air bag did not deploy. In 2000, a Fort Lauderdale woman died from chest injuries when her air bag did deploy when she drove into a barrier going only 10 mph.

These and similar cases have led to numerous complaints of air bag malfunction since they came into regular use in the mid-1990′s. Car safety experts claim that in cases such as these, the air bags performed exactly as designed, whether they deployed or not. Orlando lawyer, Rich Newsome, handles auto product liability and personal injury cases and was the attorney for the family of Mayling Semidey (the woman who died when her airbag deployed at 10mph). In 2003, Newsome won the $3.3 million lawsuit against Ford on behalf of Semidey’s son.

Newsome contends that the airbag is Semidey’s case was defectively designed to deploy in low-speed crashes when it was not needed. Air bags are designed to prevent catastrophic injuries caused when the driver or passenger’s head would strike the steering wheel, dashboard, windshield or other equipment at a high rate of speed. To prevent such serious injuries, air bags must deploy within 1/20th of a second and with enough force to cushion the blow; the force of an air bag deployment is like an explosion. In courtrooms, lawyers have deployed air bags to give the juries an idea of their force.

In response to the high number of deaths and injuries due to air bag problems, in the late 1990′s, car manufacturers provided car owners the ability to turn off passenger side air bags. They also raised the deceleration speed that triggers deployment and lowered the force at which they come out. Ford safety spokesman Dan Jarvis has explained that forward quick-stopping pressure, not driving speed, is the determining factor in air bag deployment.

According to an NHTSA employee, air bag malfunctions are rare. In some cases, air bags may fail to deploy due to the car being in an earlier crash and not repaired properly. The NHTSA does not compile statistics about air bag failures or complaints; however, it does keep records of complaints and investigations searchable by specific make and model through its Office of Defects Investigations (ODI) website. If the NHTSA receives enough complaints about a particular make and model, it will investigate. If it finds a problem, it can force the automobile manufacturer to issue a recall.

While air bag-related injuries and deaths are dropping, they still happen. There are still many problems with air bags that continue to kill people and cause serious injuries including deployment at low speeds, untimely deployment, deployment with too much force, and failure to deploy.