You May Have a Bomb in Your Steering Wheel.
Airbags are excellent safety devices when they’re designed and operate correctly. Many people are alive today because, after a collision, they ended up on an inflated airbag, not on a steering wheel, dashboard, or A-pillar (the sloping strip of metal supporting the front of the roof). But defective airbags are causing preventable injuries and deaths.
What is an Airbag?
Airbags are inflatable cushions built into vehicles. They protect occupants from hitting solid parts of the interior during a collision. The federal government started requiring airbags for the driver and front passenger beginning with the 1999 model year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The organization estimates that as of 2017, 50,457 lives have been saved by frontal airbags.
How do Airbags Work?
Airbags blow up like balloons after a collision. Instead of storing compressed gas to inflate them, their inflators contain a small amount of a chemical (sodium azide). It breaks down (or decomposes) instantly when heated enough, producing sodium and nitrogen gas which fills the airbag, according to the American Chemical Society.
At the start of a collision, sensors in the vehicle send a signal to the airbag, which ignites this flammable compound, creating the decomposition which inflates the airbag. It may only be 30 milliseconds between the collision and the airbag’s inflation.
Sodium azide acts as an explosive, which can be anything that, once ignited, burns extremely rapidly and produces a large amount of gas. The gas expands quickly and applies pressure to the surroundings.
What Makes Airbags Dangerous?
In the past, millions of airbags made by now-bankrupt Japanese vehicle part supplier Takata were recalled worldwide because the chemical used in the igniter was unstable and could explode with much more force than the manufacturer expected. That resulted in metal airbag parts shooting into drivers, injuring and killing some.
Another airbag maker, ARC Automotive, is battling in court against a similar recall of their airbags, some of which have exploded, killing and injuring drivers too. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) doesn’t blame the chemical they use for the problem but another manufacturing defect.
They state byproducts from welding during manufacturing may block a vent inside the inflator designed to let gas escape and fill the airbags. Pressure could build up during inflation until a canister containing the inflator blows apart.
NHTSA claims a recall is justified because ARC airbags killed two people and injured seven in the United States and Canada. The problems started in 2009, with the most recent injuries in the past year. After an eight year investigation, the inflators are defective.
ARC denies there’s a defect, states there’s no factual basis to NHTSA’s claims, and the agency lacks the authority to order a recall. It claims the deaths and injuries are due to “one-off” manufacturing problems addressed by vehicle manufacturers in a prior, more limited, recall. ARC claims those manufacturers didn’t find defects in their airbags.
How Many Drivers Are at Risk of Defective Airbags?
There may be more than 33 million people in the US driving in vehicles containing potentially defective ARC airbags, according to the Associated Press. NHTSA wants ARC to notify vehicle owners of the problem and recall 67 million airbags (some vehicles have two ARC airbags). Unless the issue is resolved, the dispute may end up in court.
NHTSA may issue a final ruling on whether the inflators are defective. They would next hold a public hearing and possibly sue ARC to obtain a recall order. Audi, BMW, Buick, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Hyundai, Kia, Porsche, Stellantis, Toyota, and Volkswagen make some potentially affected vehicles.
ARC inflators are in their airbags, and they sell inflators to other airbag manufacturers, so it’s difficult for vehicle owners to find out if their vehicles are possibly affected. Automakers say they’re looking into which models could be impacted.
How Far Away From The Steering Wheel Should You Be?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes it perfectly clear that you should be roughly 10 inches away from the steering wheel to allow safe deployment of an airbag. This is the most appropriate distance that a driver should be from the airbag containing steering wheel.
Injured in a Vehicle Accident?
Drivers don’t always cause injuries and accidents. Sometimes the fault lies with unsafe vehicles constructed with defective parts. If you seek an experienced attorney after being injured in a recent auto accident, call The Fleck Firm for a free consultation at (270) 446-7000. When you reach out to us, we’ll discuss the accident, your injuries, the law, and your best options to proceed. Insurance companies have lawyers. You should have one too.