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How Often Do Airbags Fail?

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Tina Robinson4 years ago

In February, General Motors recalled 1.6 million vehicles due to a faulty ignition switch.

A design flaw in the switch made it easy for the key to be bumped out of the “on” position, cutting power to the engine as well as key safety features such as airbag systems. The faulty switch has been linked by GM to at least 13 deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that between 2001 and 2006, “576 people died in crashes in which front airbags did not deploy.”

Of those fatalities, 360 of those victims “would have benefitted from frontal airbag protection.”

Changes in Airbag Technology

The NHTSA explains that airbags became common in the late 80s and early 90s; however, injuries and fatalities occurred in instances where a major injury was not expected due to airbag deployment.

As a result, airbag technology has constantly been evolving. Since the late 90s there have been several key changes to airbag designs:

  • Beginning in 1998, airbag designers began “depowering” airbags. The new designs reduced inflation energy and the frequency of deployment in low-speed crashes.
  • In 2001, federal regulations required automakers to phase in advanced airbag systems that can tailor to things such as crash severity, seat occupant and seat belt status.
  • Automakers began installing “certified-advanced airbags” in 2003. Certified-advanced airbags were required by 2007.

Reasons for Airbag Failure lists several reasons why airbags may fail to deploy in a crash, including:

  • The conditions of the crash were “sufficiently moderate” to where an occupant wearing a seat belt would not need protection with an airbag.
  • Many advanced frontal airbag systems are designed to turn off automatically when the vehicle detects small-stature passengers or no passenger.
  • Airbags may fail to deploy when the vehicle’s airbag light is illuminated. The light is supposed to warn owners that there is a potential problem with the airbag system.
  • In used vehicles, there is a risk that the airbags were not replaced after an earlier accident. 
Airbag Failure Statistics

The NHTSA conducted a study to look at how often airbags fail to deploy in crashes. The study concluded that:

  • 8% of “front occupant deaths in frontal crashes appeared to involve airbag nondeployment.”
  • 1-2% of those deaths represented “potential system failures where deployments would have been expected.”


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