The Impact of Airbag Deployment on Different Body Types

Jan 17, 2024Deployment Injuries

While airbags are important safety features in modern vehicles, they provide different safety benefits for different people. A person’s height and weight can both be major factors in determining whether an airbag provides adequate protection in the event of a crash. Ultimately, however, airbags present risks for all drivers and passengers, and if you have been injured by an airbag, you should speak with an airbag lawyer about your legal rights.

Airbag Injury Risks for Shorter Drivers and Passengers

Several studies have identified specific airbag injury risks for shorter drivers and passengers. For example, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in the U.K. writes:

“[R]esearch shows that . . . drivers under 55 kgs 160 cms [five feet and two inches] are at greater risk of being hurt by their airbag. Smaller drivers will normally move their seat closer to the steering wheel and control pedals, and hence, are closer to the airbag deployment zone. Therefore, it is possible that they would be hit by the airbag while it is inflating.”

The NHTSA recommends that drivers keep at least 10 inches between themselves and the airbag cover on their steering wheel. Sitting too close to the steering wheel can result in being hit by the airbag while it is inflating, as noted in the quote above. This presents two distinct injury risks:

  • The force of the airbag’s deployment can cause injuries and,
  • The driver’s body can prevent the airbag from fully deploying, restricting the airbag’s ability to keep the driver safe during a collision.

Another study conducted at Oregon Health & Science University found that drivers who are shorter than four feet and eleven inches are at even greater risk than slightly taller drivers. According to the study’s author, “While airbags are modestly protective for mid-stature occupants, they appear to increase the risk of injury for . . . small stature adults.”

Airbag Injury Risks for Lighter Drivers and Passengers

Many vehicles come equipped with on/off switches that disable a passenger’s airbags if the passenger is below a certain weight. Since a vehicle’s sensors can’t measure a passenger’s height, weight is used instead. If a passenger is below a certain weight, the vehicle assumes that the passenger is also below a certain height—and it disables the passenger’s airbags.  

While it can be safer for a shorter driver or passenger’s airbags not to deploy in some circumstances, being in an accident without airbags can also be extremely dangerous. Then, of course, there is the fact that some lighter individuals are tall enough for airbags to protect them as intended. As a result, lighter drivers and passengers can face serious injury risks regardless of their height. This is true whether a vehicle disables its airbags unnecessarily or a vehicle’s weight sensor or on/off switch malfunctions.

Airbag Injury Risks for Taller Drivers and Passengers

Studies have also shown that taller drivers may be at heightened risk for suffering airbag-related injuries in the event of a crash. For example, the Oregon Health & Science University study referenced above found that drivers “taller than six foot three” suffered airbag-related injuries at a disproportionately high rate. Some potential reasons for this include:

  • If a driver’s or passenger’s head is above the top of a front-impact airbag, the airbag won’t stop the driver’s or passenger’s forward motion as effectively.
  • If an airbag deploys into a taller driver’s or passenger’s chest and fails to restrain his or her head against forward motion, this can lead to whiplash and other head, neck and back injuries.
  • Similarly, if a side-impact airbag deploys too low on a taller driver’s or passenger’s arm or shoulder, the force of impact from the airbag can cause the driver’s or passenger’s neck to bend dangerously.

As a result, head trauma and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) may be of particular concern for taller vehicle occupants in the event of airbag deployment. While airbags are specifically designed to prevent these injuries, airbags may not be as effective—and may even be more dangerous—for taller drivers in many circumstances.  

Airbag Injury Risks for Infants and Small Children

Airbags can also present serious injury risks for infants and small children. For this reason, the NHTSA advises that “children under 13 should sit in the back seat”—where the risk of being injured by an airbag is significantly lower.

But, even children sitting in the back seat can be at risk of suffering airbag injuries. As the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains, “[a]ir bags save lives by protecting drivers and passengers during frontal crashes, but can be dangerous to young children seated in the front seat or leaning against the door, in the case of side airbags.” A child safety seat that is appropriate to the child’s age and weight can help to minimize the risk of airbag injuries in the back seat, and toddlers’ car seats should typically face backward in order to provide protection in the event of a frontal airbag deployment.

To reiterate, while airbags can be more dangerous for certain body types, airbag injuries are a very real risk for all drivers and passengers. This risk is magnified by the fact that millions of vehicles on U.S. roads currently have defective airbags manufactured by Takata and ARC. If you, your spouse or partner, your child, or any other member of your family has suffered an airbag-related injury, you should speak with an airbag lawyer about your legal rights as soon as possible.

Are You Entitled to Financial Compensation? Talk to an Airbag Lawyer for Free

We help accident victims and families recover just compensation for airbag-related injuries. If you would like to know more about your legal rights, we invite you to contact us for a free, no-obligation consultation. To speak with an experienced airbag injury lawyer as soon as possible, give us a call or tell us how we can reach you online now.