Air Bag Safety Issues Continue to Plague Automakers

Defective automotive air bags have resulted in a surprisingly high number of deaths and injuries over the last several years.  So far this year, 1.5 million Honda and Toyota vehicles have been recalled due to air bag problems. In 2012, there were 22 separate safety recalls involving air bag issues.

In January, Honda Motor Company announced the recall of nearly 750,000 Pilot SUVs and Odyssey minivans due to defective air bags that the automaker said could fail to inflate properly. Last year, the company was forced to recall vehicles due to a different defect which caused some air bags to inflate too quickly. That defect resulted in 20 accidents and at least two deaths.

Last month, Toyota Motor Corporation recalled nearly 900,000 Corolla sedans, Matrix compact wagons and Pontiac Vibe crossovers, which were assembled at its NUMMI plant between 2009 and 2010, due to defective circuit boards which caused some air bags to inflate accidentally.

Last November, Chrysler Group LLC recalled nearly 750,000 Jeeps because of faulty airbag circuits.

Air bag safety recalls have been announced for a variety of reasons including faulty construction and installation, electrical short circuits, mechanical defects and software issues. Improperly installed air bags can inflate too quickly and send plastic and metal shards flying with the force of a small bomb.

In addition to these safety concerns, federal officials are also concerned about a new threat – counterfeit air bags. Last October the NHTSA urged millions of consumers who had been involved in accidents to check with their dealers to ensure that their vehicles had not been equipped with counterfeit air bags.  The agency has identified more than 20 counterfeit air bag makers, many based in China, and numerous arrests have been made.

In spite of these problems, federal regulators say air bags save thousands of lives every year. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator David Strickland says, “Air bags in particular play a central role in keeping drivers and passengers safe in the event of a crash.”

Automakers and consumers alike appear to feel the potential risks are outweighed by the benefits. Instead of scaling back to reduce the potential for problems, automakers are increasing the number of air bags in many new models. The 2013 Dodge Dart is equipped with 10 air bags, including front-impact, side-impact, overhead and knee airbags.  GM now offers front center air bags to keep the front passenger and driver from colliding with each other in the event of an accident. Volvo has even developed an exterior-mounted air bag designed to protect pedestrians from serious injury in the event they are struck by the vehicle.

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