Airbags remain a continuous target for safety investigations and consumer product recalls. After some airbags in Hyundai and Kia vehicles didn’t deploy, and caused four fatalities and six people to suffer serious injuries, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated more than 400,000 vehicles in 2018. In April 2019, the NHTSA expanded their investigation to include the airbags in an additional 12.3 million vehicles.
This investigation focuses on ZF TRW airbags found in Honda, Mitsubishi, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota vehicles as well as Hyundai and Kia. The NHTSA reports some of the airbags might fail during a crash. Their investigation includes examining the airbag control units each car company uses and determining if they are faulty. The control units are responsible for sensing a crash and triggering deployment of the necessary airbags.
The ZF TRW investigation comes on the heels of the Takata airbag recall, the largest automotive recall in United States history. The NHTSA reports more than 41 million vehicle equipped with about 56 million airbags have been recalled because the airbags might explode in conditions of high heat and humidity, leading to fatalities and severe injury for drivers and passengers.
This guide provides information about defective products in general, airbag defects, potential injuries from a malfunctioning airbag, how you can stay safe in light of recent recalls, and your next steps if you have suffered harm from a malfunctioning airbag.
Understanding Product Defects
You might wonder exactly how a malfunctioning airbag can make its way into your vehicle. After all, designers and manufacturing plants perform all types of testing before they release a new product, especially automobile companies who have a lot to lose when people are injured or lose their lives in their vehicles. Regardless of the type of product, defects typically fall into three different categories:
- Design defects occur in the beginning stages of a vehicle. When engineers are designing new vehicles and features, they have made a mistake somewhere in the design, causing a defect. In many cases, malfunctioning airbags are a result of design defects. For example, the recent Takata airbag recall is a result of a poor choice in material during the design process. Sometimes issues show up during crash tests, but often times consumers and car companies aren’t aware of design defects until the car has been on the road for some time.
- Manufacturing defects occur when companies build parts and assemble vehicles. This might be a result of an employee mistake, improper tooling of machinery, damage during shipping, and a variety of other things. Improper assembly remains the most likely manufacturing defect which might cause an airbag to malfunction. Airbags are sealed under other pieces of the car, making it unlikely for an airbag to be damaged after assembly.
- Information/marketing defects occur when manufacturers fail to warn of dangers associated with the use of a specific product. While marketing defects can and do happen in motor vehicles, the most recent recall of Takata and TRW airbags are not related to marketing defects.
Examples of Airbag Defects
The NHTSA sets motor vehicle safety standards and regulations for car companies and companies who design and manufacture component parts, including airbags. Manufacturers designed and included airbags in vehicles as an additional safety feature to complement seat belts. The NHTSA estimates the combined safety of airbags and seat belt use save about 3,000 lives each year. An airbag must deploy at the right time with the exact amount of required force, and any design or manufacturing defect might cause malfunction. Common defects that cause an airbag to malfunction include:
- The moment of impact sensor fails to trigger deployment of the airbag.
- The airbag deploys with excessive force.
- The airbag deploys with less than force than it needs to be effective.
- The airbag doesn’t deploy at all.
- The deployment timing isn’t correct so the airbag deploys too soon or too late
- The recent Takata recall includes airbags which explode when the weather is too hot and humid
Defective Airbags Can Lead to Severe Injuries and Death
Airbags are intended to be a safety feature to help drivers and passengers avoid injury in a traffic crash. When airbags malfunction, drivers and passengers might experience a wide variety of injuries, including:
- Head injuries and brain injuries when failed deployment causes an occupant’s head to hit the steering wheel or windshield
- Back injuries
- Multiple facial fractures
- Crushed or broken limbs
- Spinal cord injuries
- Internal bleeding and broken ribs when airbags deploy with too much force
Was Your Car Recalled for an Airbag Defect?
The NHTSA can force an automaker to initiate a recall, but as soon as car companies know about airbag issues and other defects, they often recall on their own. In either case, you will likely get a notification in the mail. Yet, when cars change owners, people move, or the owner has had the car for several years, those notifications may not arrive. If you are concerned you might have a malfunctioning airbag, you need to do a little research on your own as soon as possible.
The NHTSA maintains a website, safetycar.gov, where you can enter your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and get information about recalls on your vehicle; however, the VIN lookup feature only covers the following:
- Uncompleted safety recalls on your vehicle
- Safety recalls initiated in the past 15 calendar years
- Safety recalls by major automakers
The VIN lookup at safetycar.gov does not provide information for recently announced investigations and issues, so you may not find the recent ZF TRW airbag investigation listed yet. If your vehicle was manufactured later than 2002, you might have a Takata airbag, which means you need to take in your vehicle for repair, even if you haven’t experienced any issues.
A Product Liability Lawyer Can Help
If you suffered injury or lost a family member as a result of a malfunctioning airbag, Washington law entitles you to sue for damages. An attorney can help you learn more about product liability claims, and what to do next if you were injured due to an automobile defect.