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Airbags: Designed for Safety But Not Always Safe

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, airbags saved an estimated 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008. These bags are now standard in new cars and can pop out of steering wheels, side panels, and dashboards when a collision occurs. But these safety features are far from always-safe and certainly aren’t the soft pillows they appear to be in slow-motion crash tests. Instead, they can hurt and are frequently at the center of recalls, dangerous accidents, and allegations of counterfeiting.

For the most part, airbags are a good thing. When paired with a safety belt, it’s estimated that an airbag can reduce the risk of serious head injury by 85 percent, compared with 60 percent for seat belt use alone.

In some situations, however, the very things designed to protect vehicle occupants can kill them.

According to a BusinessWeek report from 2006, 262 deaths were attributed to airbags deploying in low-impact crashes or pre-impact braking. Burns, flying shrapnel and objects, or failures to deploy have caused other airbag-related deaths and injuries.

GM airbag failures result in six fatalities

In just one recent story of airbags gone wrong, automaker GM announced the recall of 788,000 Cobalt and Pontiac G5 sedans for problems with airbags. The recall was announced on Feb. 13 and affects Cobalts from model years 2005-2007 and G5s from 2007.

According to Autoweek, the airbags can be rendered useless when a heavy keychain knocks the ignition switch off. When a keychain laden with extra keys or heavy accessories dangles from the ignition, the impact of an auto accident has been found to switch the car into the “off” position. This, in turn, disables the airbags right when they are needed the most.

Five crashes involving this problem have resulted in six fatalities thus far. The accidents happened when the vehicles left the road at high speeds. A spokesperson for GM said alcohol and safety belt usage were also a factor in the crashes. But, there is little doubt a working airbag could have saved these six lives.

Honda Accords investigated for untimely inflation

In contrast to the GM airbags failing to inflate, safety officials are currently investigating 2008 Honda Accords, whose side airbags are inflating upon the slam of a door. According to USA Today, the investigation involves 363,000 cars, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has fielded some 28 complaints, with two injuries.

In these cases, the occupant exited the vehicle and shut the door. The impact of the closing door allegedly triggered the deployment of a side curtain airbag. In one case, the driver had to pay for repairs as his dealership insisted there must have been a collision and his insurance company said he couldn’t file a claim without an accident.

In another complaint, a driver exited the vehicle, leaving his 9-year-old son in the backseat. When the car door slammed, the airbag deployed. After the smoke cleared, he discovered his son had been hit and suffered a concussion and lacerations.

Safety gone wrong?

With the millions of vehicles on the roads and the majority of them containing some sort of airbag protection, it’s fortunate we see airbag issues as rarely as we do, an indication that the industry is mostly safe. However, when an airbag isn’t safe, the driver and passengers involved risk being hurt or even killed.

Unfortunately, problems with airbags aren’t normally noticed until a number of complaints come in, and usually these complaints surround injuries or fatalities that happened because of the airbag problem or defect. By the time an investigation is launched and a recall issued, it’s very likely that the problem will have already taken a fatal toll.

When an automaker drags its feet in issuing a recall, it’s an outrage. With each day that passes, the automaker runs the risk of being held responsible for a horrible accident. Defective cars and car parts should be treated with the same seriousness as a lethal weapon, because when a vehicle is traveling down the highway without working safety features, that’s what it becomes.

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