An airbag is a safety device designed to prevent people  from striking interior objects inside the vehicle during a collision.  They are not required in every motor vehicle. They save lives. However, they can also cause significant injuries.  These injuries include pulmonary, cardiac, rib, and sternal fractures, onset or worsening asthma, and chemical burns.

How Airbags Work

There are two main components of an air bag. One is the impact sensor. The impact sensor detects a rapid deceleration and signals the deployment of the air bag. Typically the sensors are set to deploy for every impact that occurs over twelve miles per hour. When this deceleration is detected the sensor sends an electrical signal to the air bag’s main hub. This triggers the air bag deployment.

The air bag’s main hub contains an ignitor, the airbag itself which is usually made of nylon, and a cover that breaks away when initiated.airbag injury

Airbag Origins

The earliest designs of the airbag can be traced back to 1941. A patent war was started in 1951 between the German Walter Linderer and the American John W. Hetrick. A little American ingenuity passed the patent through on August 18, 1953, three months ahead of the German authorization on November 12, 1953. Little came of either patent as Linderer’s design was found to be too slow to truly be effective, and Hetrick’s design was never considered to be a worthy investment for car companies at the time.

Physics Fights Back

While airbags are taken for granted in 2014, the creation of the airbag was challenged by the general laws of motion. The momentum of moving objects has quite a bit of force. Things inside that moving object will continue to move with that force despite a sudden and immediate stop by the object. In an accident, a car comes to an immediate stop while the passenger does not, thus creating a dangerous situation. The goal of any restraint mechanism is to stop the force at which the driver or passenger is propelled forward without causing injury.

In 1967 Allen K. Breed developed a mechanism that would inflate the airbag within 30 milliseconds of impact. By 1970’s Ford and General motors were selling cars equipped with airbags.  General Motors included a passenger airbag in its Oldsmobile Toronado, but discontinued it in 1977 citing a lack of interest in the product. The  Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991made driver and passenger airbags mandatory for passenger cars and light trucks made after 1998.

It was originally thought that airbags would replace seat belts. However, significant research has been done to suggest that airbags are only effective if used in tandem with a lap and shoulder restraint. The reason for that is the impact from an airbag is potentially dangerous. The typical danger zone is within 2-3 inches of the steering wheel at the time of impact. A safe distance from the steering wheel is recommended to be 10 inches. The seat belt insures that you remain at a safe distance.

Cardiac and Pulmonary Injuries with airbags

Air bags can cause significant cardiac and pulmonary injuries. In this article, “Airbag Deployment Can Cause ‘Hidden’ Cardiac Injuries”, it is stated that airbag deployment can cause injuries such as aortic transection, tricuspid-valve injury, right atrial rupture, cardiac contusion, MI, aortic-valve avulsion, cardiac tamponade, and hemopericardium. These injuries may not be readily apparent after an accident. It is very important that you ask your doctor about these potential injuries after a motor vehicle accident.

Rib and Sternal Fractures with air bags

The blunt force trauma to the chest which often occurs after an airbag deploys can be a significant injury. The injury can lead to pathological fracture, no lie. A pathological fracture is one that weakens the bone and leads to long term problems keeping the bone strong and intact. A pathological fracture is a very serious injury that can lead to long term health problems. It will also dramatically increase the amount you should ask for in a personal injury settlement. If you do have a chest fracture of any kind you should consult with your doctor as to whether or not the fracture will lead to a weakening of the bone.

Airbags are inflated as quickly as they are based off of a chemical reaction. Heat is needed to generate the combustion of air that fills the airbag. For that reason the inhalation of chemicals can cause serious medical problems. This study, “Airbag pneumonits: a report and discussion of a new clinical entity” details the story of a young man who developed shortness of breath and mild pneumonia after inhaling chemicals from a deployed airbag.


Another danger is the gas emitted from an airbag after its deployment. An airbag’s material allows for chemicals to flow through the fabric and into the vehicle after an accident. These gasses can lead to chemical burns and the onset of asthmatic like symptoms. The most dangerous situations occur when the driver or passenger remains in the vehicle for a longer amount of time after the accident. This generally occurs when a driver or passenger is unconscious from the accident and is left  in the car for a significant amount of time.

The most common car accident neck injury is whiplash. This occurs when the neck is forced from a moving position to a non-moving position in a relatively small amount of time. It was first used in 1928 and was referred to as “railway” spine. The reason is that people often suffered whiplash as a result of train accidents. Whiplash refers to both the soft tissue and bone issues suffered with this phenomenon. Whiplash is usually not fatal but it can become a chronic issue. Most people tend to recover fairly quickly but others fight a battle with recovery for years before they find the right treatment to serve their ailments.

Another common neck injury is the neck sprain. This is a stretching, pull or tear of the ligaments that separate the bones in your neck. Ligaments are a fibrous tissue, when they are damaged they become stiff and painful.

Cervical Radiculopathy, or a pinched nerve, is frequently found in people who have just been in a severe car accident. The brain sends electronic signals to every part of your body through the central nervous system. If a nerve is blocked or pinched, it does not receive the signal from the brain resulting in weakness in the muscle, and can also result in numbness. When the nerve is blocked the signal has nowhere to go causing radiating symptoms known as Cervical Radiculopathy.

The sudden jolt from traveling in a vehicle at a high speed to coming to a complete stop can result in a herniated disc. The sudden pressure on a disc puts so much force on disc the the fibrous tissue that connects the tissue can be forced out. It’s kind of like the jelly inside a doughnut that is being smashed. This can cause pain, weakness and numbness.

Concussions often occur when the driver of the vehicle comes in contact with the airbag. Concussions are typically associated with impact but they can also occur when the brain is jarred in the skull by sudden movement. Some trauma to the brain can result in a loss of consciousness but that is not always the case. In fact, quite a few concussions go undocumented because people do not realize they are being affected. Concussion research is still in it’s infancy but the studies suggest that concussions are a very serious injury that should be treated with extreme caution. A traumatic brain injury may forever change the way your brain functions.

The symptoms of a concussion are as follows:

  • Headache or a feeling of pressure in the head
  • Temporary loss of consciousness
  • Confusion or feeling as if in a fog
  • Amnesia surrounding the traumatic event
  • Dizziness or “seeing stars”
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Delayed response to questions
  • Appearing dazed
  • Fatigue

The symptoms can be difficult to identify and can come and go. Some symptoms can last for days while others can last for weeks. Concussions are typically mild and symptoms alleviate over a period of a few days. However, severe concussions can last for weeks or months and seriously change your quality of life.

If you are suffering from any of these symptoms:

  • Concentration and memory complaints
  • Irritability and other personality changes
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Psychological adjustment problems and depression
  • Disorders of taste and smell

You should contact your doctor immediately. These may indicative of a more serious brain trauma.

Fatalities from Airbag Deployment

A study performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration credited one hundred and seventy-five fatalities as a result of airbag deployment. One hundred and four of the fatalities were children and the rest were adults. Air bags are optimal when the collision occurs from the front or the rear. Additionally there are some who should choose to forgo the air bag option if at all possible.

The Ten Inch Rule

When is it not safe to use an airbag?

The injury danger zone with airbags is within 10 inches of the steering wheel. If the tip of your nose is 10 inches away from the steering wheel you should be safe.

Severe Scoliosis:

In the most severe cases of Scoliosis it may be very difficult for the driver to correctly position themselves to be a safe distance from the air bag deployment. Any sitting within ten inches of the steering wheel is in the injury danger zone.



Achondroplasia may prevent the driver resting at ten inches away from the steering wheel. It should be judge on a case by case basis.


Some wheelchairs may be incompatible with their vehicles. If you can pass the ten inch rule then you should not bother disconnecting your airbags.

People with Pacemakers:

Technically you can use an airbag if you have a pacemaker. The impact on the chest is actually less centralized with an airbag than a seatbelt or impact with the steering wheel. However, you should make sure that your seatbelt is not directly placed over your pacemaker as this could centralize the impact and disrupt the pacemaker.

Down syndrome and Atlantoaxial instability:

There are some developmental delays that prevent the subject from consistently remaining in the proper seated position. If this is the case, you may considered disconnecting the airbags.

Monitoring of infants and children:

Some parents feel the need to monitor their children in the front of the vehicle. It is strongly discouraged to place children in the front seat as opposed to the back seat.  If the infant or child must be placed in the front seat the airbag might need to be disconnected. The infant or child should be placed in a rear facing car seat.

I’ve been Injured by my Airbag. What should I do?

Immediately following your accident you should get a referral for a  medical specialist in the field of  personal injury. Additionally, you should retain the services of an attorney who will make sure that all your medical expenses are paid by those who are liable. Do not stop treatment until you are 100% recovered.

If you are permanently disabled, your attorney will instruct you to be evaluated by your doctor for a permanency rating. This will provide a numerical range of damages projected throughout your lifetime for your disability. This will be used as leverage in your settlement.

The typical injuries associated with airbags are to the head and neck, but in rare circumstances they can include cardiac/pulmonary injuries, rib and sternal fractures, and chemical burns.   If this is happening to you after an accident, you should take the proper steps to ensure that you receive only the best care and representation to ensure that your quality of life is protected in the present and in the future.

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