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Defective Air Bags

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More than 52% of the 207 million cars and light trucks on American roadways have driver air bags, and more than 81 million also have passenger air bags.

Airbags are now standard in most automobiles and trucks. While airbags do save lives, they can also cause major problems. An airbag deploys from the dashboard of an automobile at up to 200 miles per hour, anyone who is close enough to the bag can get hurt.

Air bags are automatic crash-protection systems that deploy or inflate quicker than the blink of an eye. Starting in model year 1998, the government required that all new passenger cars be equipped with dual air bags (on the driver and passenger sides). Starting in model year 1999, all new light trucks were required to have dual air bags. Driver and passenger side air bags are designed to deploy in moderate to severe frontal and near-frontal crashes when they encounter a force equal to striking a brick wall head-on at 10 to 15 miles per hour or colliding with a similar sized vehicle at 20 to 30 miles per hour.

When a manufacturer designs, produces, or installs an airbag incorrectly, serious injuries and/or death can occur. Some types of defective airbags include the following:

Overly-aggressive air bags. When air bags are overly aggressive, they deploy too fast (sometimes at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour) and too far into the occupant space, which can cause severe head injuries, brain damage, and even decapitation.

Oversized air bags . Some air bags, because they are too big or they do not have tethers, come too close to occupants during the inflation process. Tethers are simple cloth straps sewn into the fabric on the inside of the bag to limit the rearward movement of the air bag during inflation. Despite the industry's knowledge of the dangers of untethered bags (most driver's side bags have been tethered for years), many passenger side bags do not have tethers.

Untethered air bags. Tethers are cloth strips that are sewn on the inside of the air bag to limit rear-ward movement during the inflation process. When an air bag is untethered , its movement isn't limited, and it can come too far into the occupant space and cause serious injuries.

Low deployment threshold . Air bags are not necessary in low-speed crashes. However, when an air bag is set to deploy in a low speed crash, many people sustain injuries that they would not have encountered had the air bag not deployed.

System malfunctions. There have been numerous reported instances (and recalls) of air bags because of unnecessary deployment (on ignition, upon striking a pothole or curb). These are typically caused by a problem in the electrical system or sensors.

Front-mounted horizontally deploying air bags. This design causes the air bag to deploy directly toward the passenger during inflation before it has formed its fully inflated shape - the "giant pillow" shown in the television commercials. In truth, in the early stages of deployment, an air bag is more like a missile than a pillow. A safer design used by some car manufacturers is to mount the air bag on the top part.

Inadequate warnings. The government only requires the sun visor warning label. The car companies could put more warning labels in cars (on the dashboard, for example) to explain to people that a deploying air bag can be very dangerous, especially to children and small statured women.

Failure to deploy. Although air bags are not designed to deploy in every type of collision (such as rollovers and side impacts), they should deploy in accidents where the impact is frontal and the speed at impact is moderate (about 20-25 mph). The failure of the air bag to deploy can be caused by defective sensors or improper placement of the sensors.

Lack of an air bag. Air bags are not a new idea. Air bags were first patented in 1920 and the major car companies have been designing and testing them since the 1950s! Ford and GM were selling cars with air bags as early as 1972. Yet, many cars that came off the assembly line in 1997 still did not have air bags.

Thousands of automobiles with defective air bag systems are on the road in the United States today. When those cars are involved in routine collisions, people will be unnecessarily injured.


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