What’s Wrong with Airbags?: NMA E-Newsletter #383

By Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director

If you drive a car manufactured after 2003, you probably have smart frontal airbags whether you want them or not.  This is a fact of life since frontal airbags have been mandated by the Federal Government. The Federal Highway Administration reports that in 2011, 96% of all new cars had frontal airbags and many had side impact airbags as well, even though they were not required and sometimes optional.   Car owners are not allowed to turn off their own car’s airbags either unless they have special circumstances documented and approved by the government, a rather difficult and lengthy process.

Wearing your seatbelt and the cushion airbag have been documented to save more lives in a head on collision.  So airbags are a good thing, right?  If airbags supposedly save lives, why does owning a car with frontal airbags make me nervous?

One reason–the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to recall upwards of possibly 65 million airbags that were built by the Japanese company Takata.  Apparently, the device that inflates the Takata airbag might explode under certain conditions.  The explosion will cause flying shrapnel to fly out and hurt you even worse than the car crash you were involved with when the airbag inflated.  Over 7.5 million airbags so far have been repaired but that is only a small fraction of airbags that need to be replaced immediately.

At least 10 people now have been killed and hundreds have been injured from the flying shrapnel.  In April 2016, the latest victim was a 17 year old Texas teen who crashed a 2002 Honda Civic, one of the oldest of the cars in the recall.  She was killed by exploding shrapnel that hit her neck.

If not your car, you probably know someone who has a car that will be affected by this massive recall.  The Department of Transportation website Safercar.gov has the most up-to-date list of cars affected by the recall.

According to Consumer Reports, over 14 different automakers with cars built between 2002 and 2015 are affected by the recall.  NHTSA calls the Takata airbag recall “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history.”   Not only is this a massive recall it is also a quick one with five phases to be scheduled starting this month (May 2016) through the end of 2019.  Cars will be ranked based on 3 main risk factors:

  • Age of the car and airbag
  • Exposure to humidity
  • Fluctuating high temperatures that can accelerate the degradation of the airbag

The Takata airbag problem apparently stems from the use of ammonium nitrate-based propellant wafers.  If the inflator housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards from the airbag can spray throughout the passenger cabin hurting anyone in their way.

Used properly and when they are properly functioning, frontal airbags can save lives especially if you are involved in a head on collision.   But if you sit too close to the airbag or sit at a wrong angle because you are too short, pregnant or a child under 12, you might have cause for concern with airbags in general.

Second reason I am nervous about airbags:  Along with all the other things I have to worry about in my life, I now have to think about making minor adjustments to how I sit in the car and how my family sits in the car just so we will not become hurt by a device that should keep us safe.

For example, in researching this story I realized that I needed to make a change with my own teenage son when he sits in the front seat of my car.  He is certainly big enough to sit in the passenger side front seat if he sits correctly.  Because we are always in a rush to get to his school in the morning, he would leave his backpack on but still buckle up.  When he did that though, he was too close to the airbag and the backpack put him at a bad angle if we were to have an accident.  He doesn’t really get it of course because he’s a teenager and I still have to remind him to take that backpack off every day.  He claims we won’t crash on the way to school and he’s probably right, but I don’t want to take that chance.

As consumers and as responsible drivers, we will go and have our airbags fixed of course.  But what if we were allowed to turn off our airbags until that occurred?  Airbags apparently are quite difficult to turn off on your own and has the possibility of affecting other car functions as well.  Auto mechanics are not allowed by law to turn off an airbag unless there is a permission letter from the Federal Government.  Meeting the criteria to turn off your airbag (Click Here) is quite stringent too.  If we were allowed to turn off our airbags due to safety concerns would our insurance rates go up, would we lose our car’s warranty or if we had a crash and it was discovered we turned the airbags off would we face criminal charges?

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