The front airbag is not supposed to deploy in a minor car accident such as a fender bender in a parking lot The seatbelt alone is designed to protect you in a low-speed collision.
Suppose your airbag deploys leaving a red rash on your face. The rash typically goes away after a few days. In order to file a crashworthiness lawsuit, the occupant must have suffered severe injuries.
The front airbag is a safety system invented and designed to protect the driver and front-seat passenger from serious injury in a high-speed vehicle accident such as a front-end collision. The airbag works in tandem with the 3-point safety restraint system of the lap and shoulder belt.
It is the function of the airbag to kick in if you are in a high-speed wreck or hit while stopped by a fast-moving vehicle.
Seat and shoulder belts typically measure nearly two inches in width and protect the chest and torso. The physical loads in a high-speed accident can cause seatbelts alone to rip through your body. That’s where the airbag comes to your rescue. It is over 30 inches wide and spreads the load across your body.
In the following video, Steve Syson, the father of the airbag at General Motors, and Vehicle Safety Lawyer Todd Tracy explains how to know if you have grounds to file a defective airbag lawsuit.
Defective Airbags – Transcript
For those of you who prefer to read, the transcript of Todd and Steve’s video discussion is below.
Everything Needed To Know About Defective Airbags And If You Have Grounds For A Lawsuit
Todd Tracy: Hello, this is Todd Tracy, with the Tracy Law Firm in Dallas, Texas, with another Todd Talk. Today I want to talk to you about the importance of airbags. Many people think that airbags are a relatively new safety feature but they really aren’t. In fact, today I have with me one of my primary experts on restraint system safety. This gentleman’s name is Steve Syson and he is really one of the fathers and creators of the air cushion restraint system, which ultimately became known as the airbag restraint system with General Motors.
Todd: Now we also have a lot of other issues because we have airbags these days in vehicles that aren’t just frontal airbags. We have airbags for the torso, we have airbags for the head, we have combination head, torso, and pelvis, we have side curtain airbags. What are some of the issues that you see as a consultant looking at these vehicle defect cases around the country?
Steve: I think one of the big things I see is that side airbags often don’t deploy when you need them in crashes, and if they do deploy, sometimes they deploy too late. Then there are a lot of vehicles where the crash sensors are not placed appropriately to fire the side airbags in the types of crashes that you see most frequently. They’re only really designed to fire the side airbags in the government crash test and in the crash test that’s conducted by the insurance institute for highway safety. So they generally have a crash sensor back here in the pillar. They don’t have a crash sensor here in the area of the base of the windshield. A very large percentage of real world crashes occur where vehicles or trees or poles hit this area at the base of the windshield, and the side airbags don’t go off in those crashes.
Todd: Now a lot of times we see people today that are going out and they buy these vehicles that have these side curtains on them and they expect these side curtains to fire in a rollover. Do a lot of these vehicles that these people have bought—are they going to fire in a rollover
Steve: Not unless a vehicle has a rollover sensor and there are rollover sensors being phased in. They started coming in in relatively small numbers in about 2003 and now they’re getting to be more universal. Most sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks now have rollover sensors, but there’s an awful lot of passenger vehicles that don’t have rollover sensors and the side airbags that they have don’t provide protection in rollovers because they don’t stay inflated long enough.
Todd: Well, when you’re talking about long enough, and staying inflated long enough, give our audience here an idea of how long a side airbag will stay deployed in a side impact versus a side curtain airbag will stay inflated in a rollover.
Steve: Well, typical side airbags only stay inflated for 50 to 150 thousandths of a second, so less than typically a blink of an eye. A blink of an eye is about 250 thousandths of a second, so an airbag is open for significantly less than the blink of an eye. A rollover crash typically lasts 5 to 6 seconds, so the safety canopy type airbags, they’re airbags that are designed to protect in rollovers—those airbags stay inflated for about 6 seconds. And they do that by coating the fabric, so the fabric is no longer porous, so the air doesn’t bleed through the airbag fabric, so it stays inside. They also use what is called a cold gas inflator. The typical side airbag, like the side airbag in this vehicle, uses a gas generator that generates relatively hot gas. And that hot gas, as it cools, loses pressure. So most of the inflators for safety canopy type airbags generate gas at much lower temperatures, so it doesn’t lose pressure as it cools down either.
Todd: Why are we interested in keeping the side canopy airbag up so much longer in a rollover than we are in a side impact?
Steve: Well a rollover accident, the vehicle stops over let’s say 100 feet. And if you’re traveling at 30 to 35 MPH at the start of a rollover event, you have to cover that entire 100 feet. But if you start out at 30 MPH, that’s 44 feet per second, or for round numbers, let’s say you start out at 50 feet per second, your average speed over that 100 feet is only 25 feet per second, so your time required to travel 100 feet is 4 seconds. So that airbag has to inflate before the vehicle starts to roll over and stay inflated until the vehicle comes to rest. So it has to stay inflated for at least 4 seconds, even for a relatively low speed rollover that starts at a little over 30 MPH.
Todd: Now, let’s move away from rollovers for a moment and talk about frontal impact. How quickly does a vehicle that’s traveling 30 or 35 MPH, how quickly does that come to a stop of 0?
Steve: Well typically about 100 milliseconds, or 100 1000’s of a second, so about a third of the time it takes to blink your eye.
Todd: And how quickly in terms of distance—if you’re going 30 to 35 MPH, how much space do you have that you are going in that speed, down to 0?
Steve: Well, most vehicles these days, not much more than 2 feet, if that.
Todd: So in a frontal impact, you go from 30 to 0 in 24 inches, in the blink of an eye, and in a 30 MPH rollover, you go from 30 to 0 in 100 plus feet, plus 4,000 milliseconds, which is 4 seconds?
Todd: And that’s why you want to have the side curtain or side canopy airbag stay up for what they call long duration inflation?
Todd: Now, let’s talk about this idea about the narrow frontal offset impact where the impacts are to the left of the headlight, or to the right of the headlight. What happens when a vehicle is involved in that narrow frontal offset? What is happening to the vehicle’s airbag systems?
Steve: Well the airbag systems generally are deploying very late if at all.
Steve: Because the crash sensors typically are mounted either to the radiator support or to the outward side of the main structural rail of the chassis, or occasionally to the radiator support. And the radiator support, the chassis, they all end before you get to any—really, there’s no structure out beyond the bumper, there’s really no structure out in the area of the headlight. So if you look at this, I’ve got this mustang here. There’s really no structure in the area of the crash sensors, which are generally down low on the vehicle, so what you wind up doing is, especially if you run into another car, this unibody rail here, catwalk, doesn’t take much load, so all of the load ends up going into the wheel and tire assembly. So it takes a long time if it gets to the crash sensor to make it from the wheel and tire assembly, through the suspension, through the main structure of the vehicle, back to the front of the car to get to the crash sensor.
Todd: All right, so the airbag fires late. What’s wrong with that?
Steve: Well the rule of thumb that’s been used since I was working on airbags, is you want the airbag to deploy 30 thousandths of a second, before the occupant has moved 5 inches. SO what happens if the airbag deploys frontly, is it’s pretty much full before the occupant gets to the bag.
Todd: And if the airbag fires late, are there some injurious consequences to the occupant?
Steve: There are. I’ve had several cases where the occupant has gotten ahead of the airbag and then when the airbag deploys, it blows them up into the A pillar and they get serious head injuries. I’ve had cases where the occupant gets too close to the airbag before the airbag deploys, and it deploys right into their eyes and causes eye injuries, facial fractures, other injuries that are often disabling. If the airbag blinds you, obviously some people recover from that, but if you have a ruptured globe or other serious eye injury, that can permanently blind you.
Todd: Well Steve, if you have your seatbelt on, isn’t the seatbelt going to hold you in place like a piece of rigid rebar? So who cares if the airbag fires late or not?
Steve: Unfortunately, belts today are designed to work only if the airbag deploys. The seatbelts today have what are called load limiters in the system, and they limit the load to about 700 pounds, give or take. If you think about it, if you weigh 170 pounds and the seatbelt can only apply 700 pounds, that means it can only decelerate you with about 4 G’s.
Todd: And in a 30 MPH accident, what kind of G’s are you going to see on that seatbelt in a moment in time?
Steve: Well if you’re looking at the occupant, the seat, and the passenger compartment, those parts of the vehicle are going to see 20 G’s at least. And if the seatbelt is only capable of applying 4 G’s to slow you down, then you are going to move feet within the occupant compartment. And it’s particularly dangerous, then, if the airbag deploys late because you are right up on top of the airbag when it deploys. And that was one of the big things, one of the big problems we were trying to solve back in the 1970’s, when people were not belted. We had to get the airbag up and inflated before the occupants got to the belt. Well now we have the exact same problem today. The airbag has to deploy promptly because the seatbelts don’t hold you in your seat anymore.
Todd: Now I guess I’m confused because I remember about 15 years ago that the vehicle industry, they started using devices known as pre-tensioners that actually took the slack out of the belt and helped re-position the occupants in their seat, to sort of minimize or prevent forward excursion. What’s the change?
Steve: Well the problem is that the pre-tensioner is fired by the same sensor that fires the airbag. So if the airbag is late, the pre-tensioner is late. So you’re in exactly the same situation you would have been if you hadn’t been belted in the first place. You’ve got a seatbelt that doesn’t hold you in your seat and when the airbag and pre-tensioner fires, you’re already out of position.
Todd: I remember looking at, when my kids were younger, when they were in child seats, and it always said make certain that your child’s seatbelts, that you could put no less than two fingers between their chest and the shoulder belts, because you wanted that child to be firmly secured and restrained inside the child seat. I’m curious, why haven’t car manufacturers taken that philosophy that we have with our children and child seats and done the same thing with our front passenger seats?
Steve: Well some manufacturers do, and some Fords, for example, the pre-tensioners fire before the airbags. BMWs, some Mercedes, the pre-tensioners fire at a much lower threshold, so that gives you a much better chance of the safety belt holding you in your seat before the airbag fires.
Todd: But it seems to me that there’s sort of a diametrically opposite philosophy because the pre-tensioner, on one hand, is taking you back in your seat, but yet the load limiter is overpowering the pre-tensioner and allowing you to go forward several inches. I know that you and I have handled cases where there was 18 inches of load limiter excursion on a vehicle seatbelt.
Steve: Yeah, I’ve seen anywhere from 8 to 18, and obviously, if your shoulder moves 8 inches, your head moves 10 or 12 inches. If your shoulder moves 18 inches, you’re eating the dashboard. So you’re eating the dashboard before the airbag even goes off.
Todd: So there’s still a lot of issues that we see with airbags, even in 2016. Are we going to continue to see problems with airbags?
Steve: I would expect so, because we’ve got so many more of them. We’ve got airbags in the seats, Mercedes has airbags in the back windows, I think we’re going to see more and more problems because the more complicated you make things, the more likely you are to have failures. The first rule of making something that’s reliable is making it simple.
Todd: But is the Achilles heel on these airbags really the cheapest part of it, and that’s the sensor?
Steve: Well that’s definitely a problem, and the decision-making process, with regard to when you want the airbags to fire, most manufacturers don’t assess whether or not the airbag is going to fire in a real crash. They only assess whether the airbag is going to fire when you run the vehicle into a big block of concrete.
Todd: Which brings me to another topic I want to chat with you about and that’s this idea that the vehicle industry, since the beginning of time, has been testing their vehicles to only meet standards, rather than trying to protect people in real world accidents. I want you to talk to us about that.
Steve: Well I think that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer but I think most manufacturers, because of the limitations of the number of tests you can run, run those tests that either provide them with a PR benefit, which would be those tests that allow them to assure themselves that they’re going to do well in the government new car assessment tests because if you do well in those, you get a good star rating and you get good publicity.
Todd: You get a 5-Star rating.
Steve: You get a 5 Star, you get to sell lots more cars. If you do well on the insurance institute highway safety test, they give you a thumbs up, a green rating like they have side impact crash tests that they run. If you do well in those tests, then you get good publicity. So I think it’s more publicity driven, and obviously financial. You can only run so many crash tests, so they run the crash tests that are going to get them the best PR.
Todd: Well, aren’t some manufacturers even getting away from doing crash testing these days and only doing computer simulations? I recall a commercial for Ford of Europe where they said they did 12,000 simulations.
Steve: I don’t know if they’re getting away completely from crash testing, but they are relying on computer modeling and obviously trying to keep up with the times, I have computer modeling people do computer models of real-world crashes to see why the safety system didn’t work and what could be done to improve the safety system.
Todd: Is it important when you’re doing a computer simulation like that to also—when Ronald Reagan was president, he always used to say, “You need to trust, but verify”—is it important sometimes for lawyers like myself and consultants like yourself, to actually go out and verify the accuracy of these computer simulations?
Steve: I worked on computer simulation when I worked for General Motors and the key to using computer simulations, based on what I learned at GM, is validation. You validate the computer model against a known vehicle, then you make changes to the computer model, and those changes are generally predictive of what happens in whatever type of test you’re trying to simulate with the computer. But if you don’t validate the model, then the chances of the model being predictive are much smaller. So that’s probably the single most important thing to do, is to look at a crash test, or a real-world accident, and make sure that the model actually predicts what happened within a reasonable degree of accuracy.
Todd: Is that why it’s important, whenever you do hire a law firm, that that law firm has the technological capability, and the financial wherewithal, to actually go out and run validation testing periodically?
Steve: Obviously, it’s important also to have folks that you hire who understand the basic operating principles of crash safety. Hiring any lawyer off the street, that lawyer is not going to know enough about the way that vehicles work to be able to provide you with proper representation.
Todd: Thank you Steve for your time today.
Steve: Well You’re welcome.