When Safety Blows up in Your Face

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Those of us old enough to recall the days before vehicular airbags were common know that when first introduced, airbags were hailed as an innovation that would revolutionize auto safety. While not the panacea for crash injuries that some predicted they would be — statistics show that three-point seatbelts are far more effective at preventing death and injury than airbags alone — airbags are helpful and have been credited with saving more than 10,000 lives since they became mandatory in new U.S. automobiles in 1997. And we like them. The dashboard indicator that tells us they’re working correctly adds a touch of reassurance when we start our cars. Their puffy, balloon-like appearance when activated has often been used as the basis for slapstick comedy scenes in our entertainment. The reality is that the unintentional inflation of an airbag is no laughing matter. Even under ideal circumstances, a routine airbag deployment can cause injury, even in the process of saving a motorist’s life. Children are particularly at risk, which is one reason why some states (but not Pennsylvania) require passengers under the age of 13 to ride in the back seat. We’ve recently learned, though, that millions of airbags installed in the vehicles we drive daily have the potential to cause far more serious injury – and even kill. The problem, as detailed by the records of airbag manufacturer Takata and the myriad automakers that use its products, lies in a defective inflator mechanism that began appearing in Takata airbags at least as early as 2002. As early as 2004, when Honda first discovered the problem in some of its vehicles, Takata was aware of incidents in which its airbags would inflate with such explosive force that they would not merely inflate, but also spray the interior of the vehicle with dangerous pieces of metal and plastic shrapnel from the inflator mechanism. Through a manufacturing defect, the airbags had been transformed from safety features into flak cannons, aimed squarely at the drivers and passengers they were intended to protect. The inflators reportedly use a small explosive charge made of ammonium nitrate — the same chemical compound that was used in the truck bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 — in order to force the airbag open in less than one hundredth of a second. If that charge burns too quickly, as seems to be happening in the defective units, the increased force of the explosion can blow apart the metal casing that holds it. Citing a two-year gap in its records, Takata claims to be unable to trace all the defective parts to the manufacturers that received them, to say nothing of the vehicles in which they were eventually installed. What has become apparent, however, is that a problem once believed to have affected a small number of vehicles built by one or two Japanese nameplates is now known to affect at least 7.8 million vehicles from ten different domestic and foreign automakers. That number may grow higher still in the months ahead. Meanwhile, as the industry fumbled its way through a series of ineffectual recalls, some of its customers have been getting filleted in their vehicles. The New York Times relays the story of a mother in Richmond, Virginia who collided with a mail truck in her Honda Accord in 2009. Pieces from her airbag mechanism fatally wounded her in the neck and torso, and she bled to death in front of her three children. That same year, a teenager in an Oklahoma high school parking lot had a minor fender bender with another vehicle. The airbag exploded, and a piece of metal from its innards sliced open the girl’s carotid artery. She, too, bled to death. They are among the four deaths and 30 injuries already officially linked to the defect. More than 100 other victims or their families have alleged a similar connection. The weeks and months ahead are likely to provide additional details of the oversights and sloppy processes that led to millions of devices with explosively deadly defects being placed just inches away from our bodies. If you or a loved one believe that your injuries in a crash during the past ten years may have been aggravated by an airbag explosion, call Scartelli Olszewski today. We’ll review your case and help you determine whether the automobile industry and its suppliers bear responsibility for some of your suffering.