Hidden injuries resulting from collisions with airbag deployment
With the recent recall of millions of airbags manufactured by Takata, I wanted to take a moment to discuss general airbag safety and injuries that sometimes result from deployment in collisions. Sadly, about 7.8 million vehicles made by several different manufacturers have been recalled due to airbag defects, which have been injuring passengers.
Airbag deployment is a serious event in a collision. The deployment occurs at an extremely high rate of speed and produces a very loud gunshot-like sound. During deployment, heat, gases, chemicals and dust are all byproducts of the airbag after it is triggered by a collision. Interestingly enough, low-speed collisions are sometimes more dangerous if an airbag deploys because passengers are typically seated closer to the airbag at the time of deployment. This is especially concerning for shorter adults and passengers who ride without their seatbelts.
How Airbags Operate
Before discussing injuries resulting from airbags, it is imperative to understand precisely how airbags operate. Airbags are typically made from light technical fabrics. The fabric and inflation mechanism is tightly packed within the steering wheel or the dashboard behind a sheet of plastic flaps, which are designed to tear open after the airbag is triggered. The overall airbag is controlled by a central airbag control unit commonly referred to as an ACU. This computer like system integrates various sensors like wheel speed sensors, gyroscopes, brake pressure sensors, and seat occupancy sensors, which ultimately determines whether the airbag will deploy in a collision. During a collision this ACU computer integrates all of the information available and decides whether to activate the airbags. Often times I have heard clients complain about their vehicles because airbags did not deploy after an accident. Fortunately, airbags are intelligent enough to deploy only under specific, predetermined circumstances. By no means is this explanation of airbags meant to describe in detail the process behind the airbag deployment.
However, more importantly, we are concerned with hidden injuries that could occur as a result of airbag deployment. A study published earlier this year by the Canadian Journal of Cardiology warns of possible hidden cardiac and thoracic injuries resulting from next generation airbags. Lead author Dr. Rami Khouzam of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center located in Memphis warned that the significant cardiovascular injuries resulting from airbag deployment are aortic transections, tricuspid-valve injuries, right atrial ruptures, cardiac contusions, MIs, aortic-valve avulsions, cardiac tamponades, and hemopericardium. Sadly, this is a long list of hidden injuries that could result from an airbag deployment after a moderate to severe collision.
Prior to becoming a lawyer, I spent many years in the collision repair industry as a repair professional. In my experience, one of the most concerning observations I made was the fact that many people do not know how to properly sit and position themselves in a vehicle. It is well known that sitting closer than 10 inches to an airbag will cause much greater injuries. Thankfully, in certain vehicles it is possible to turn the airbags off. Turning the airbags off is advisable if a young child or short person is sitting in the front passenger seat.
What to Do after an Accident Involving an Airbag Deployment
Immediately following a collision involving an airbag deployment it is important to contact first responders by dialing 911. It is important to relay all of your present symptoms to the 911 operator. By listing all of your symptoms over the phone, the 911 operator can relay this information to paramedics who will be arriving on scene. Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect internal injuries, such as heart conditions and other cardiac traumas. Cardiac and pulmonary complications can frequently occur without any symptoms of chest pain or visible wounds. Cardiac trauma is especially difficult to diagnose especially when other injuries or present such as broken bones or lacerations because the main focus becomes the visible injury. Typically decelerating type accidents are highly susceptible to cardiac and pulmonary convocations.
Diagnosing Hidden Injuries
By looking at the human anatomy and its respective anatomical position in relation to seatbelts and airbags, one can easily understand how these injuries occur. First, the human heart’s right ventricle is located directly behind the sternum. Logically, it receives a substantial impact resulting from the airbag deployment on the anterior chest wall. Another major area of concern for possible rupture is regarding one of the thinnest vascular structures in the thorax, which is the right atrium.
Furthermore, during the differential diagnosis phase, doctors need to evaluate and consider an acute coronary occlusion resulting from blunt trauma and chest pain related to airbag deployment. This becomes especially important in young patients. As such, it is always prudent to be evaluated by doctors and stress the importance of diagnostic testing, such as a coronary angiogram or transthoracic echocardiogram.
Most frequently the injuries associated with an airbag deployment are rib and sternum fractures. Oftentimes overlooked, asthma patients have great difficulties after a collision involving airbag deployment due to have inhaled chemical compounds or suffering from inhalational chemical pneumonitis.
The Ever-Evolving Airbag
Over the years the airbag has seen many technological changes. Today’s front impact airbags are very different from the airbags of 1996. At the very beginning, first generation airbags were simple and relatively “analog.” First generation airbags had a simple crash sensor that would deploy the airbag at a constant rate of speed if disturbed or crushed. Unfortunately, this led to many airbags deploying unnecessarily and dangerously. However, airbag technology today has improved leaps and bounds above what it used to be. Currently, in addition to occupant sensors, airbags of today have several other sensors to detect not only the size of the occupant, but also the seat position, seatbelt use and the severity of the crash. All of these sensors are used to determine how the airbag will deploy and react. For example, if the impact is relatively small, the airbag will deploy at a slower rate of speed.
These advanced airbags first started to be integrated into vehicles in 2003. It was later required by law in 2006. Interestingly enough, federal testing requires that these new style airbags provide safety for an average sized male and a small woman wearing seatbelts and collisions of up to 30 mph. Additionally, these advanced airbags are required to be safe for a small woman who is not wearing a seatbelt in the crash of up to 25 mph.
In sum, while airbags have greatly improved the safety of our vehicles, it is still important to educate drivers and passengers about seatbelt safety, seat positioning and good driving habits. Unfortunately, there is currently no “safety silver bullet.” Sadly, injuries do happen. However, if you or someone you know has been involved in a collision where an airbag has deployed, it is imperative that they seek medical attention as soon as possible.