When a car’s airbag deploys, it comes out of the dashboard at extremely high speed, generally over 100 MPH. The airbag will also be hot and may be covered with dust and chemicals that assist in the deployment. While airbags undeniably save lives and prevent injury in serious car accidents, they can also cause injuries. In this article, we'll discuss how airbags work, what can go wrong when an airbag deploys, and what a legal claim for airbag-related injuries might look like.
How Does an Airbag Work?
An airbag is made from light fabric. The driver’s air bag is in the steering wheel, and the passenger’s air bag is behind a panel on the dashboard. The driver’s air bag is about the size of a large beach ball when fully inflated, but the passenger’s air bag can be much larger. This is because the passenger’s air bag is further away from the passenger and so needs to be larger in order to protect the passenger.
The airbag is connected to a crash sensor, which will deploy the airbag if the car gets into a sufficiently severe crash, which is usually defined as a head-on and near-head-on crash at approximately 8 to 14 MPH.
In a severe crash, the crash sensor will trigger an igniter to produce a gas, generally nitrogen or argon, to fill the airbag and deploy. The airbag will deploy in about 1/20th of a second, which is why the airbag comes out of the steering wheel or dashboard so fast. The airbag will then deflate almost immediately, but the deployment will usually release various kinds of dust and chemicals, which can irritate the eyes and skin.
What Can Go Wrong When an Airbag Deploys?
The most significant deployment error is a malfunction of the crash sensor. There are a number of things that could go wrong with the crash sensor. It might malfunction and deploy the airbag at the wrong time, such as when you’re driving down the highway.
Or, the crash sensor might not deploy the airbag at all when it was supposed to deploy -- or it might deploy one airbag, but not the other. Similarly, it might deploy the airbag, but a microsecond too late.
Because the timing of the deployment is so critical, deployment of the airbag even a fraction of a second too late could cause serious injury because now the driver or passenger’s head is too close to the airbag.
What are Common Airbag-Related Injuries?
A malfunctioning crash sensor can cause very serious injuries or death. But any deployment of an airbag can cause injury.
- The speed at which the airbag deploys can cause abrasions or burns.
- The chemicals released upon deployment can irritate or even cause an asthma attack.
- Airbags can cause a severe eye injury if the airbag hits someone in the eye.
Even a proper airbag deployment can cause serious or fatal injuries if the front seat occupant is very close to the airbag when it deploys.
For example, if someone is, for whatever reason, leaning very close to or against the steering wheel or dashboard at the exact moment that the airbag deploys, the force of the deployment could cause serious injuries or death. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recommended that drivers sit at least ten inches away from the steering wheel.
Can I Sue for Injuries Suffered When an Airbag Deployed?
A malfunctioning airbag can give rise to a personal injury claim. The usual negligence standard applies in airbag injury cases. Thus, in order to win an airbag injury case, you and your lawyers must be able to prove that somebody was negligent (i.e., did something wrong). Simply because you were injured as a result of the airbag’s deployment or failure to deploy does not mean that anyone was negligent.
The next question is who are the potential defendants. There are three potential defendants in airbag injury cases:
- the automobile manufacturer
- the airbag manufacturer, and
- if the car’s airbag was inspected, maintained, or replaced after purchase, whoever did the inspection, maintenance, or replacement.
What Should I Do If I Think an Airbag Malfunctioned?
The most important thing that you can do is to preserve the evidence related to the airbag. Do not let the airbag or any parts related to it -- like the crash sensor -- be thrown away.
Make sure that the car’s computer is not wiped clean, and make sure that you do not let the car be junked or transferred to the insurance company.
Generally, if an insurer declares a car to be a total loss after an accident, the insurer will want to take possession of the car. You must hold on to the car if at all possible. This may be difficult if it was not your car, but remember that, in litigation, it is always the plaintiff’s burden of proving that the defendant was negligent. In an airbag injury case, it will be very difficult to impossible to prove your case without the car, the car’s computer, and the airbag and all of its parts.