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NHTSA Investigates Whether ‘Electrical Overstress’ Is Causing Airbags to Fail

Can I Sue for Personal Injury If My Airbag Didn’t Deploy in a Car/SUV Crash?

June 3, 2019

In the shadow of one of the largest recalls in U.S. history of more than 56 million airbags made by Takata, auto safety regulators have opened a new investigation that once again has motorists questioning whether their vehicle’s airbags will protect them in a serious crash.

On April 19, 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into whether airbag control units (ACU) manufactured by TRW (now known as ZF-TRW) could fail due to “electrical overstress” during a crash event, resulting in non-deployment of airbags and seatbelt pretensioners, which lock a seatbelt in place during a crash.

The function of the ACU is to sense a vehicle crash to determine whether airbag deployment is required, and if so, to deploy the appropriate airbags and other supplemental restraints. NHTSA says harmful electrical signals produced by the crash and sent through sensor wiring might cause the ACU manufactured by TRW to stop working, resulting in non-deployment of airbags and other supplemental restraints.

The probe affects a reported 12.3 million vehicles with model years ranging from 2010 through 2019. The vehicles are manufactured by the following automakers:

  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
  • Honda
  • Hyundai
  • Kia
  • Mitsubishi
  • Toyota

Defective ACU could be responsible for as many as eight crash-related deaths, according to the Associated Press.

A Timeline of NHTSA’s Electrical Overstress Airbag Failure Investigation

NHTSA’s April 19 investigation expanded a preliminary evaluation that the agency began on March 16, 2018.

NHTSA upgraded its evaluation after identifying two serious crashes (one fatal) involving Toyota Corollas where airbags failed to deploy. The preliminary evaluation arose from six crashes involving model year 2011 Hyundai Sonatas and model year 2012 and 2013 Kia Fortes where airbags did not deploy. Those crashes led to four deaths and six injuries.

What Happens If NHTSA Finds That TRW’s Airbag Control Units Are Defective?

If NHTSA determines that there is a problem with the ACU that poses a safety risk to vehicle occupants, it can compel a recall of affected vehicles.

Hyundai, Kia and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles have already issued recalls for vehicles manufactured with the TRW part, according to NHTSA’s April 19 report.

How Many Lives Are Saved by Airbags?

According to NHTSA, from 1987 to 2017, frontal air bags saved 50,457 lives. For 2017, the agency estimates that 2,790 lives were saved by frontal airbags.

Side airbags that protect the occupant’s head reduce a car driver’s risk of death in driver-side crashes by 37 percent and an SUV driver’s risk by 52 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Can I Sue for Personal Injury If I Am Injured in a Crash in Which My Airbag Didn’t Deploy?

“Any time an airbag fails to deploy and an occupant suffers a significant injury, a legal claim should be explored,” Feldman Shepherd auto defect attorney Alan Feldman said. Feldman’s legal practice focuses on crashworthiness/auto defect claims involving catastrophic personal injuries. These claims arise when the vehicle itself, because of its unsafe design or the absence of necessary safety features, fails to protect the occupants from injury.

Feldman identified two other types of airbag failures that can give rise to legal claims:

  • When an airbag deploys aggressively so as to affirmatively cause head, neck, and eye injuries.
  • When an airbag deploys late in the accident sequence, after the occupant is already close to the airbag, resulting in occupant injuries.

In all cases, the algorithm used by the vehicle manufacturer should be investigated to determine whether a particular crash is a deployment or non-deployment event, Feldman said.

“When designed properly, airbags can have tremendous life-saving benefit. But when designed in a defective manner which fails to consider foreseeable crash modes, occupants can be left without protection in otherwise survivable accidents,” Feldman said.

When Should I Contact a Crashworthiness/Auto Defect Attorney?

Feldman recommends contacting a crashworthiness/auto defect attorney as soon as possible following a crash involving serious injuries or death due to the need preserve the subject vehicle before an insurance company sells it for salvage. “It is virtually impossible to bring a crashworthiness/auto defect claim if the vehicle is not available for inspection by experts,” Feldman said.

Additionally, every state has its own strict deadlines as to when a lawsuit must be filed.

Feldman added, “We take seriously our responsibility to investigate and prosecute these important claims, which often have devastating consequences for our clients and their families.”


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