Airbag Deployment Speeds: Finding the Balance Between Safety and Risk

For airbags to work properly, they need to deploy at the correct speed. This is true not only regarding the speed that a vehicle is traveling at the time of impact but also regarding the speed of the airbag itself. Airbag deployment issues can lead to serious (and sometimes fatal) injuries, and they can leave victims and families in need of an experienced airbag failure lawyer.

At What Speed of Travel Should an Airbag Deploy?

We’ll talk about vehicle speed first. The speed at which an airbag should deploy depends on whether the driver or passenger is wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision.

This is because airbags and seatbelts are designed to work together to mitigate the risk of serious crash-related injuries. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) explains:

“Air bags are supplemental protection and are designed to work best in combination with seat belts. . . . Air bags reduce the chance that your upper body or head will strike the vehicle’s interior during a crash. To avoid an air-bag-related injury, make sure you are properly seated and remember—air bags are designed to work with seat belts, not replace them.”

When a driver or passenger is wearing a seatbelt, the seatbelt alone may be enough to prevent serious injuries in the event of a low-speed crash—and an airbag deploying in this scenario can present unnecessary risks (and lead to unnecessary costs). But, as collision speeds increase, proper airbag deployment takes on increasing importance.

Mind you, collision speeds don’t need to increase much for airbag deployment to become necessary. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS):

“For unbelted occupants, a front airbag will typically deploy when the crash is the equivalent of an impact into a rigid wall at 10-12 mph. For belted occupants, most airbags will deploy at a higher threshold — about 16 mph — because the belts alone are likely to provide adequate protection up to these moderate speeds.”

This might be surprising. At 10-12 mph, it can feel like you are barely moving when you are driving (or riding in) a car, truck or SUV. But, even at these low speeds, a direct collision can be extremely dangerous. Head-on and rear-end collisions, in particular, can present risks for serious injuries—including back, head, and neck injuries that present risks for serious and long-term complications. When a driver’s or passenger’s airbag fails to deploy in a head-on or rear-end collision, whiplash can cause multiple forms of internal trauma—and this can leave accident victims facing long, painful and expensive roads to recovery.

How Fast Should an Airbag Deploy Upon Impact?

When a vehicle’s crash sensors detect that airbag deployment is necessary, how fast should the airbag deploy? According to the NHTSA, airbags should deploy in “less than 1/20th of a second.” This is extremely fast—about how long it takes the average person to blink.

To deploy this quickly, modern airbags are equipped with inflator mechanisms that trigger a chemical reaction upon impact. This chemical reaction produces a “harmless gas” (according to the NHTSA) that fills the airbag. The airbag is not filled permanently but rather just long enough to prevent a driver or passenger from coming into direct contact with the steering wheel or dashboard (or the door or window in the case of a side-impact airbag).

Understanding the Risks of Delayed Deployment or Non-Deployment

When an airbag fails to deploy as it is supposed to, the risks can be significant. This is true whether a vehicle’s crash sensors fail to trigger deployment or an airbag’s inflator mechanism does not fully inflate the airbag in under 1/20th of a second.

In both of these scenarios, drivers and passengers can suffer the very types of injuries that airbags are intended to prevent. For example, common injuries sustained in crashes involving delayed airbag deployment or non-deployment include:

  • Chest injuries—including broken ribs, broken clavicles and punctured lungs
  • Facial injuries—including eye, nose and jaw injuries
  • Neck injuries—including whiplash, muscle damage and nerve damage
  • Spinal cord injuries (SCI)—including herniated discs, cracked vertebrae and nerve damage
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBI)—including concussions, contusions and coup-contrecoup injuries

Again, these are just examples. Airbag injuries can take many different forms, and in many cases, drivers and passengers will suffer multiple serious injuries due to delayed airbag deployment or non-deployment.

Understanding the Risks of Airbag Explosions (Over-Deployment)

Along with delayed deployment and non-deployment, there is also a risk that an airbag can over-deploy (or explode) in the event of a crash. This is a particular concern with defective airbags manufactured by Takata and ARC.

Defective inflators in Takata and ARC airbags are known to cause explosions during deployment in some cases. Rather than properly inflating the airbag in less than 1/20th of a second, the inflators rupture—sending dangerous chemicals and debris flying toward unprotected drivers and passengers. As a result, not only are drivers and passengers unprotected against direct impacts, but they are also at risk for burns, lacerations and other serious injuries.

In all cases, drivers and passengers who suffer airbag-related injuries (whether due to delayed deployment, non-deployment or over-deployment) can—and should—take legal action. Manufacturers that sell dangerous and defective airbags deserve to be held accountable. If you or someone you love has suffered airbag-related injuries, you should speak with an airbag failure lawyer about your legal rights as soon as possible. Your initial consultation is free, and you can hire a lawyer to represent you at no out-of-pocket cost.  

Request a Free Consultation with an Airbag Failure Lawyer Today

Do you need to know more about filing a claim for serious or fatal injuries caused by delayed airbag deployment, non-deployment or over-deployment? If so, we encourage you to contact us right away. To discuss your legal rights with an experienced airbag failure lawyer in confidence, give us a call or tell us how we can reach you online today.