While the number of cars on the road has increased steadily over the past few decades, the number of fatal accidents has decreased significantly. This decline is largely due to advances in life saving technology, particularly airbags.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), airbags saved over 50,000 lives between 1987 and 2017. Of course, airbags are only effective if they work properly. While there are several reasons an airbag might not deploy, the most common reason is that the airbag was defective.

Reasons why airbags may not deploy

Airbags are designed to provide soft cushioning for drivers and passengers in a car accident. For this purpose, an airbag system in the entire vehicle is dependent on crash sensors. These sensors deliver information in seconds to the central computer or the electronic control unit (ECU) of a vehicle.

In the event of an impact, a control unit immediately enters the data from the crash sensors into an algorithm to determine whether the crash meets the requirements for provision. If this is the case, the control unit triggers one or more airbags. All of this happens within 15 to 30 milliseconds.

For an airbag to be deployed properly, a lot has to happen in a very short time. Given their complexity and the speed at which they need to be deployed, airbags don’t always work. Sometimes airbags will not deploy at all. In other cases, airbags are deployed too late.

Airbags cannot deploy for a number of reasons, including:

  • Malfunction of the crash sensors

  • Damaged wiring or electrical components

  • Airbag modules defective

  • An airbag that was not replaced after a previous collision

In addition, there are certain situations in which an airbag will not deploy for reasons not related to mechanical defects. For example, the type of collision cannot trigger the airbag. This may be because the vehicle’s on-board computer records the accident as minor and assumes that the occupant’s seat belt provides adequate protection.

Another reason an airbag may not deploy is because the vehicle detects a person or child with a smaller frame in the front seat. If there is a smaller frame passenger in the back seat who is too close to the side airbag, the vehicle’s computer will prevent the side airbags from deploying.

Who is responsible if an airbag does not work?

If a driver or passenger is injured in a motor vehicle accident in which the airbag did not deploy, they may be eligible for financial compensation from a variety of sources. If another driver caused the accident, an accident victim can of course bring a lawsuit against that party. However, there may also be other claims. An often overlooked claim is a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the vehicle or the manufacturer of the airbag, or both.

Product manufacturers, including those who manufacture vehicles, may be held liable for injuries caused by their products. In most states, manufacturers of defective products can be held strictly liable. Strict liability is a legal theory that imposes liability on a defendant without the injured party having to prove that the defendant was negligent. Thus, an automobile manufacturer can be held liable for a defective vehicle or component according to a strict liability theory, even if the manufacturer did not know that the vehicle or part was defective.

Product liability claims are divided into three types: construction defect claims, manufacturing defect claims and non-warning claims. A design flaw occurs when the design of a product is inappropriately dangerous for its intended use. When an accident victim brings up a design flaw, they are claiming that all products with the same design are defective. An example of this would be a vehicle with badly placed crash sensors that could not adequately assess the accident forces.

Manufacturing defect claims arise when a product is defective due to incorrect manufacture. As opposed to a design defect claim, a person making a manufacturing defect claim is not arguing that all similarly styled products are defective, only that the product causing them to be injured was defective.

Finally, a non-warning entitlement arises when a product that cannot be used for its intended purpose without being inherently dangerous does not contain a warning or instructions on how to limit the hazards involved.

Proving evidence of a product liability case is not always as easy as it seems. Although an accident victim may not have to prove that a manufacturer acted negligently, they still have to meet the essential elements of a product liability claim. In a situation in which an airbag has not deployed, an accident victim must demonstrate the following:

  1. The airbag should have been deployed, but it didn’t.

  2. The airbag was not deployed due to a defect in either the design or manufacture. and

  3. The victim sustained injuries caused or exacerbated by failure to use the airbag.

Evidence that an airbag should have deployed and why the airbag did not deploy usually requires submission of an expert who can explain the science behind an airbag failure to the judge or jury. In addition, engineers, accident reconstruction specialists, and medical experts may be required to prove that the victim’s injuries were caused or worsened by the airbag failure.

Accident victims who believe their injuries were caused or made worse by failure to deploy an airbag should contact a dedicated personal injury attorney to discuss their options.


NHTSA: https://www.nhtsa.gov/equipment/air-bags

IIHS: https://www.iihs.org/topics/airbags

NSC: https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/historical-fatality-trends/deaths-and-rates/

© 2020 by Console and Associates. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 238