Airbag Failures Involved in Hundreds of Fatalities Each Year, Yet Little Action is Taken

Airbags are considered by many as a last line of defense against serious injury in a car accident. But a new investigation has found that <"">airbags often fail to deploy when they should, leaving accident victims seriously – and sometimes fatally – injured. The investigation, conducted by the Kansas City Star, also found that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is doing very little to protect consumers from the threat of airbag failure, and that even when it does take action, the process for issuing airbag recalls is painfully slow.

According to the Kansas City Star’s analysis of the NHTSA accident database, between 2001 and 2006, at least 1,400 people died in front-impact car accidents after airbags failed to deploy. And this number is on the conservative side, as the newspaper did not count accidents that involved side-impact crashes where the airbag did not work, nor did it count fatal crashes that involved principle impacts to the left or right fender, accidents where victims died after being ejected, or when a crash involved a vehicle rollover. The Kansas City Star investigators also did not count airbag failure if a vehicle caught fire or was submerged in water. The newspaper also excluded crashes where a car’s airbag was not included as standard equipment. Had the Kansas City Star included such accidents in its investigation, the death toll would have risen by more 4,000 fatalities.

The newspapers investigation also found that the number of accident fatalities that occurred when an airbag did not inflate has risen dramatically over the past several years. Since 2001, the number of deaths in accidents where airbags failed has gone up about 50 percent. And in 2006, there was a 14 percent increase in such fatalities. But shockingly, the NHTSA does not see the failure of so many airbags as a problem. According to the Kansas City Star, when told about the 1, 400 fatalities, a NHTSA spokesperson told the newspaper “If it’s a real number, it’s not a surprise to us.”

That quote pretty much sums up the NHTSA attitude towards the problem of airbag failure, something the agency has not paid much attention to a over the past decade. Since 1996, the NHTSA has launched only about 50 probes into airbag non-deployment. And according to the newspaper, the NHTSA’s own records show that of 20 crashes it investigated that found evidence of airbag failure, only one resulted in a recall.

Even when an NHTSA investigation finds a defective airbag, it can take years for the agency to finally order a recall. In 2002, General Motors issued a recall for some 2000 model trucks, including the popular Silverado make, after airbags failed to deploy is several crashes. But GM had known since 1999 that there was a problem with these airbags. The NHTSA allowed GM to spend 30 months “testing” the faulty airbag system before it finally issued a recall for more than half a million trucks. According to the Kansas City Star, during that 30 month delay, at least two drivers were killed in Silverado trucks when the vehicles’ airbags failed to deploy.

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