While the auto industry initially resisted the mandatory installation of airbags in passenger vehicles, there is substantial evidence that airbags save lives. According to Consumer Reports, the Department of Transportation credits airbags for saving 37,000 lives between 1987 and 2012. Unfortunately, defective airbags also take lives. The recent recall of airbags manufactured by Takata, affecting nearly 34 million cars and trucks in the United States, is only the most recent in a long line of airbag problems that have jeopardized the lives of vehicle occupants. In fact, one study questions the conventional wisdom that airbags save lives, concluding that airbags significantly raise the probability of death for unbelted occupants in low-speed collisions. A University of Georgia statistician concluded that in low-speed collisions, unbelted occupants are four times more likely to die when airbags deploy than when they do not.
Through 2007, at least 287 people were killed by airbags, including 180 children. The worst year for airbag-related deaths was 1997, when airbag deployment killed at least 53 people, including 31 children. Those numbers have grown as a result of the Takata airbag crisis. The qualifier “at least” is important since nobody really knows how many people have been killed by defective airbag design and construction. Airbag death statistics come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That agency keeps track of deaths caused by airbags but its statistics do not include deaths that could have been prevented when a defective airbag fails to deploy. Even more important is NHTSA's cautious approach to attributing a vehicle occupant's death to airbags. When an occupant dies in a low-speed crash and the death was clearly caused by airbag deployment, NHTSA adds the death to its airbag death statistics. When an occupant dies in a high-speed crash, however, NHTSA is more likely to attribute the death to the crash rather than the faulty airbag.
Fatalities involving children
Airbags have always posed a greater danger to children than to adults. Airbags inflate with great velocity. They are designed to protect an adult of average size. Children and small adults may experience a massive blow to the head from an inflating airbag that is designed to strike the chest of an adult. A child (particularly under the age of 13) who sits in the front seat is twice as likely to suffer a serious injury if an airbag deploys during a collision. For that reason, safety experts recommend that children under the age of 13 should always ride in the back seat. In vehicles that have no back seats, passenger-side airbags should be turned off when a child is riding in the vehicle. Children have historically been the most common victims of airbag-related deaths. The NHTSA statistics suggest that unrestrained (or improperly restrained) children are the most likely victims, but children in both forward-facing and rear-facing child safety seats have died due to airbag deployment. Of the 180 children who died due to airbags through July 2007, eight were killed by the driver's side airbag. Another 39 children received life-threatening injuries, one of whom was injured by the driver's side airbag.
Causes of airbag injuries and fatalities
Vehicle occupants are unnecessarily injured (and sometimes killed) when:
- Front airbags deploy in a collision from the side
- Airbags deploy in a low-speed collision
- Airbags deploy too quickly
- Airbags deploy too slowly
- Airbags fail to deploy when they should
- Airbags rupture or explode when they inflate
- The force of the inflating airbag causes head or chest injuries
- The force of the inflating airbag harms a pregnant occupant
- The noise of the airbag deployment causes hearing loss
- An occupant's arm or leg breaks because of its position when the airbag deployed
The most recent recall involving Takata airbags resulted from evidence that defective inflaters cause the airbags to explode when they deploy, sending pieces of shrapnel flying through the passenger compartment. At least 140 deaths have been attributed to exploding Takata airbags.
The Takata recall
Given the number of vehicles affected by the Takata recall, it may take as long as two years for every defective airbag to be replaced. Some dealers have replacement parts on hand but others are waiting in line for parts to be delivered. If you received a recall notice or think that you might receive one, contact your dealer immediately to find out whether you will need to wait for your airbag to be replaced. If you are uncertain whether the airbags in your vehicle were manufactured by Takata and subject to the recall, you can check the list of recalled vehicles on Car and Driver.
A more up-to-date list (but less easy to use) is available on the NHTSA website. You can also look up your vehicle by entering the VIN on NHTSA's recall site. Keep in mind that car manufacturers are still in the process of investigating whether they installed defective Takata airbags. More recalls are expected, so you may need to check the NHTSA website periodically. Also keep in mind that at least 400,000 inflaters that were installed to replace defective inflaters will need to be replaced again.
It may be a years before the full extent of the current defective airbag crisis is known. Want to obtain compensation for injuries or a loved one's death that you believe is directly related to a defective airbag?
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