Research shows that Airbags save countless lives. But airbags, particularly side airbags, have also caused injuries. Some vehicles with side impact airbags or side curtain airbags have proven to be unsafe and a number of cars with side airbags have been recalled. Airbags that deployed unexpectedly, causing harm to drivers or passengers, have led to defective airbag lawsuits.
A 2007 study (Craig Newgard, MD, of Oregon Health & Science University) found that for drivers taller than 6 foot 3 inches, air bags were associated with a 5 percent greater risk of serious injury and for drivers shorter than 4 foot 11 inches, air bags were associated with a 4 percent increase in the risk of serious injury.
Side Airbags and Curtain Airbags
Curtain airbags are designed to protect the head for front-seat occupants (and back seat occupants in some vehicles) during a side crash. When deployed, curtain airbags form a cushion between the occupant's head and the window and they may protect in a rollover.
- The manufacturer fails to install air bags in the vehicle;
- The air bags fail to deploy (open);
- The airbags deploy in a low-impact crash and cause death or injury.
Honda issued a recall in 2008 because its airbags opened with so much force that metal parts of the airbag assembly could blast through the airbag, injuring a passenger in contact with the airbag. In May 2011 the Honda airbag recall expanded to 833,000 vehicles that may have been equipped with a faulty airbag. Meanwhile Hyundai issued a recall for 2007-2009 Elantra sedans for an airbag system sensor that could cause the airbags to open incorrectly, increasing the risk of injury to smaller passengers (i.e., women, children and the elderly) in the event of an accident.
Airbags Deploying Without Cause
The NHTSA conducts ongoing investigation and research on a variety of crashworthiness issues including potentially defective airbags. In 1997 it held a public forum regarding the safety of airbags and concluded (among other things) the following:
- Passenger-side air bags, as they are currently designed, are not acceptable as a protective device for children positioned in front of them and can kill or critically injure these children in accidents that would have been survivable had the air bag not deployed.
- The number of children killed and critically injured in accidents similar to those investigated for the Board’s study will continue to increase unless immediate action is first taken to determine the benefits of passenger-side air bags, as currently designed.
- Air bags are being designed, because of certification testing requirements, primarily to protect unbelted rather than belted vehicle occupants even though the air bags are promoted as supplemental restraint systems and the majority of motor vehicle occupants now use seatbelts.
- In 9 of the 13 accidents investigated for this study in which there were collisions with other vehicles and passenger-side air bag deployment, the change in velocity was less than 20 mph, yet 5 of the 9 children in the right front passenger seats in these accidents sustained serious, critical, or fatal injuries from contact with the passenger-side air bag (2 of the 5 children were in rear-facing child restraint systems).
- The number of fatalities to children from deploying air bags will continue to increase because the NHTSA’s proposed rulemaking of August 6, 1996, does not include the nearly 22 million vehicles that will be on the road by the end of 1996 with passenger-side air bags and the estimated 13 million additional vehicles that will be sold each year until the new standards are in effect.
The NHTSA gave automobile manufacturers until 2012 to provide advanced air bags.
Side Airbag Safety Study
In 1997 Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety released a study that showed significant differences in the safety records of passenger-side airbag designs and some airbags were “poorly designed”, adding that some cars fitted with airbags were much more dangerous than others.
In vehicles with side airbags, it is dangerous for occupants to lean against the windows, doors, and pillars, or to place objects between themselves and the side of the vehicle. For instance, if you are sideswiped and your side curtain airbag fails to deploy, you could suffer a serious concussion and even brain injury. Say you are driving in a storm and your vehicle is blown off the road; your side curtain airbags inflate and cause excessive force to children riding in the backseats.
Or your front passenger side airbag suddenly deploys without warning. A lawsuit was filed against Ford Motor Co. when a child was injured (August, 2008) after a Ford Expedition's airbags suddenly deployed when the vehicle was not in use. The complaint stated that, “Such unnecessary and unexpected deployment of the airbag caused serious injuries and damages." The plaintiff claims the Expedition is defective and unsafe due to the unnecessary and unexpected deployment of the airbag while the vehicle was not in use.
Side Airbag Recalls
December 2010: Chrysler Group recalls 65,000 Dodge Journey 2009 SUVs because side air bags might not deploy.
June 10, 2011: More than 47,000 2011 Cadillac SRX cross-over vehicles are recalled due to passenger-side side airbags that “might not deploy during a collision”.
September 2011: 10,631 Kia Sorento SUVs built between June 15th, 2006 and November 27th, 2007 are recalled due to a faulty airbag issue where the passenger-side air bag may be turned off even when an adult is occupying the seat.