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Most new cars and many light trucks are equipped with supplemental inflatable restraints, known as airbags. With the rapid proliferation of airbags there has been a corresponding reduction in the severity of some crash-related injuries, and many lives have been saved by airbags which function properly.

Unfortunately, there has been an alarming increase in the number of injuries and fatalities reported as the result of airbags which malfunction.

Failure to Deploy

Airbags are designed to deploy when a vehicle in forward motion decelerates rapidly. Most airbag systems are calibrated to sense vehicle deceleration corresponding to a frontal collision at speeds in excess of 20 to 25 mph. When airbags fail to deploy under these conditions, occupants do not have the benefit of protection they expect from the airbag.

Don't Change that Station!

Airbags sometimes deploy at the wrong time. The inflation of an airbag is so sudden that a driver may be distracted, disoriented or even knocked unconscious.

Serious accidents have been caused by inadvertent deployment when vehicles hit a bump, pothole, or for no apparent reason. Some GM vehicles with radio/tape controls in the steering wheel have been recalled to correct a chafing condition in the steering wheel wiring which may cause the driver's airbag to deploy when the radio settings are changed. Don't change that station!

Chemical Burns

Most airbag systems use an inflator which, when operating properly, generates a harmless gas to fill the bag. The bag contains vent holes, which allow the gas to escape from the bag.

The chemical propellant used to generate gas in an airbag module is similar to rocket fuel. As fuel and oxidized burn, small bits of reacting propellant may blow into the bag and be expelled from the vents.

Occupants have reported severe chemical burns on the face, neck and arms following airbag deployment. This occurs as a result of inadequate filtering of propellant as it leaves the gas generator module.

Injury from the bag itself

Experiencing the deployment of an airbag is somewhat like being hit in the face - very hard- by a pillow. Occupants have experienced eye injuries, facial abrasions, broken jaws, broken necks, and some of these injuries have been fatal.

Manufacturers now warn against placing rear-facing infant seats or young children in the front of a vehicle equipped with a passenger-side airbag.

Failure to Deploy in a Second Collision

After a collision involving deployment of an airbag, the airbag and gas generator module cannot be used again. Most collision repair shops do a good job of replacing the airbag module and cover, and assuring that the system is ready to perform in any subsequent collision. Many collision repair shops sub-contract the airbag replacement to a specialist. In some cases, the replacement airbag module may not be installed or connected properly, leaving it inoperative.

Occupants out of position

Frontal airbags are designed to retard forward motion of the occupants' head and upper torso when they are seated upright behind the airbag. Injuries have been reported in cases where an airbag deploys and strikes an occupant who is in an unusual position.

This may apply to children standing on the front seat, sitting in an adult's lap, or occupants in a reclining position. Some manufacturers fail to adequately warn against these hazards.

As new models begin to appear with side-impact airbags, rear occupant airbags, and active pyrotechnic seatbelt pre-tensioners, we can expect to see more accidental injuries when these products malfunction.

  * Dr. Leshner, a forensic engineer in the Mid-Atlantic area, is available for consultation. This Article was Provided by the Technical Assistance Bureau.