You’re listening to music or having a conversation, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the passenger airbag deploys, violently exploding against your loved one, injuring or even killing her.
Is this technology run amok? Negligence? Or something more sinister?
Invention with good intention
In 1953, John W. Hetrick was granted U.S. Patent Number 2,649,311 for “a safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles.” His invention was the prototype for today’s modern airbag technology.
Hetrick and his family were driving in the Pennsylvania countryside and, as they rounded a corner, swerved to avoid a large rock in the road and ended up in a ditch. Both he and his wife raised their arms to prevent their daughter from careening into the dashboard. Thus, the idea of the safety cushion assembly was born.
Modern airbag technology started appearing as optional equipment in GM cars starting in 1973, after 20 years of testing prototypes. The Air Cushion Restraint System, as it was called, failed to gain traction and was discontinued.
In 1984, the U.S. required manufacturers to begin offering airbags in vehicles produced after April 1, 1989, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated dual-front airbags in all vehicles in 1998.
Airbags save lives, mostly
The evidence is clear. Airbags, when used as a supplemental safety system to seatbelts, save lives. Studies estimate that as many as 25,000 fatalities are avoided each year because of front and side airbags combined with seat belts.
Unfortunately, there is also evidence that airbags, because of the energy required to quickly inflate them, can cause injury, even death.
A study done by the NHTSA in 2009 found that between 1998-2008, an estimated 290 persons were killed by airbags. Some 80 percent, however, were either not using seatbelts, or were children or infants sustaining fatal head injuries.
The recall covers multiple vehicles that were sold between 2000 and 2006, including BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, and others.
The issue reportedly results from a problem that appears to be related to extended exposure to consistently high humidity and temperatures. Potentially eight million automobiles will be recalled, when all is said and done.
Cars often remain on the road for 20 years or more, potentially having multiple owners over their lifespan. While it is perhaps unreasonable to expect any automobile component to last 20 years, it’s most definitely not unreasonable to expect that failure of a component will not kill you. Airbags are tricky, because they actually trigger an explosive charge when deployed.
A few years ago, my car was rear-ended by another car traveling 40-45 MPH. Fortunately, my vehicle, a Saab 9.3, protected me well. In the car that hit me, the driver airbag deployed and the driver, a young man, was unharmed except for friction burns on his arms from the impact of the airbag. I’m not sure if he was wearing a seatbelt, but I think he must have been.
With the advancement of automotive safety over the years, new or recently made autos are extremely safe overall. Manufacturers realize that they are in a world of hurt if they build unsafe cars.
However, manufacturers need to implement plans for 5-year, 10-year, even 15-year safety checks on older automobiles. They need to regain the public trust, and not be perceived to be in it for just the almighty dollar.