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Airbag Safety: Issues for Shorter Drivers

Car Accidents

Airbags have saved tens of thousands of lives since the 1980s. Unfortunately, while airbags are essential safety features in modern vehicles, they can also cause injuries; and, in some cases, these injuries can be fatal. Recent data suggests that the risk of airbag-related injuries is particularly high for shorter drivers.  

Shorter Drivers Are More Likely to Sit Closer To the Wheel

This increased risk for shorter drivers is not directly related to their height. Rather, as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) explains, the increased risk comes from sitting closer to the steering wheel. In order to be able to reach the pedals, shorter drivers will often have to slide their seats forward until they are less than 10 inches from the steering wheel.

According to the IIHS, 10 inches is the minimum amount of space needed for an airbag to fully deploy before a driver makes contact. Making contact with an airbag before it has fully deployed not only decreases the airbag’s effectiveness, but it also increases the risk of injuries caused by the small explosion that causes the airbag to rapidly inflate. As a result, the IIHS advises:

“Drivers should sit with their chests at least 10 inches away from the center of the steering wheel. Shorter drivers who need the seat positioned further forward can often achieve this by slightly reclining the seatback.”

Similarly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports:

“To perform well, an air bag must deploy quickly and forcefully. The force is greatest in the first 2-3 inches after the air bag bursts through its cover and begins to inflate. Those 2-3 inches are the ‘risk zone’ . . . .

“Occupants who are very close to or on top of the air bag when it begins to inflate can be hit with enough force to suffer serious injury or death. However, occupants who are properly restrained and sit 10 inches away from the air bag cover will contact the air bag only after it has completely or almost completely inflated.”

Who is considered a “shorter driver”? One study has concluded that the risks of airbag deployment increase for drivers who are under 5’3” tall, while another says that drivers who are under 4’11” face the greatest airbag-related risks. Ultimately, the most important issue is not a driver’s specific height, but rather how close that driver sits to the steering wheel. As the NHTSA emphasizes in its report, “[t]he one fact that is common to all who died [due to airbag deployment] is NOT their height . . . it is the fact that they were too close to the air bag when it started to deploy.”

While some resources suggest that shorter drivers may be safer disabling the airbags in their steering wheels, this presents risks of its own. As the IIHS reports, “[m]any newer airbags take into account seat position and deploy with less force if an occupant is sitting close.” With this in mind, a better option for shorter drivers may be to choose a vehicle that allows them to sit far enough back comfortably, or that includes this additional safety feature.

Airbag Defects Increase Risks of Sitting Too Close for Shorter Drivers

The risks of sitting too close to an airbag are even greater if the airbag is defective. In 2015, major auto manufacturers around the world recalled tens of millions of vehicles due to airbag defects. While many drivers got their airbags replaced some did not. Additionally, as we noted at the time, there were safety concerns with the replacement airbags as well.

This was due to the fact that the replacement airbags contained the same igniting chemical that triggered the recall. The NHTSA ordered the recall due to concerns that the ammonium nitrate inside of the airbags could combust under heat and pressure. However, the replacement airbags contained this same chemical. As we also wrote at the time, the risk of combustion was particularly high in Florida due to the state’s extreme heat and humidity—particularly during the summer months.

The list of recalled vehicles is extremely long, and many of these vehicles remain on the road today. This includes vehicles with both original and replacement airbags. If you have a vehicle from any of the major auto manufacturers that was built between 2002 and 2017, it is worth checking to see if your airbag could be putting you at even greater risk than necessary. This is true regardless of your height.

Compensation Options for Drivers and Passengers Who Suffer Airbag-Related Injuries

When drivers suffer airbag-related injuries in car accidents, they can face substantial losses, and they will often face long and difficult roads to recovery. Fortunately, they will be entitled to financial compensation in many cases. Recovery options for drivers who suffer airbag-related injuries include:

  • Personal Injury Protection (PIP) – Personal injury protection (PIP) is mandatory auto insurance in Florida that provides partial coverage for policyholders’ medical bills and lost earnings regardless of how they get injured.
  • Automotive Liability Insurance – When one driver suffers injuries due to another driver’s negligence, the injured driver can seek compensation under the at-fault driver’s liability insurance coverage or under his or her own uninsured/underinsured motorist (UIM) policy.
  • Manufacturing Defect Claims – If airbag-related injuries are the result of an airbag or vehicle defect, then the manufacturer may be fully liable for the victim’s accident-related losses.
  • Third-Party Claims Against Employers, Government Agencies and Others – In many cases, car accident victims will have claims against negligent drivers’ employers, government agencies and other entities as well.

Injured By an Airbag? Talk to a Lawyer in Tallahassee, Tampa or West Palm Beach for Free

If you have been injured by an airbag in Florida, or if someone you love has tragically suffered a fatal airbag-related injury, we strongly encourage you to speak with a lawyer about your legal rights. With offices in Tallahassee, Tampa and West Palm Beach, we represent car accident victims and families statewide. To schedule a free, no-obligation consultation, call 800-780-8607 or request an appointment online today.

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