In the 1990’s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that auto manufacturers install “smart airbag systems.” These airbag systems contain occupant detection sensors that deactivate the airbag or deploy the airbag with less force if a person under a certain weight is sitting in the passenger seat. This requirement was a response to the increase in deaths among children and small stature adults due to aggressive airbag deployment. While occupant detection sensors have many benefits, they also have many defects. These sensors are mistaking adults for children and are failing to deploy in high impact crashes for those who are well above the weight of a child.
On January 3, 2010, a defective occupant detection sensor claimed the life of Donna Lynn Hopkins. She was a front-seat passenger in a 2008 Hyundai Accent. Her husband was driving when another car smashed into them from the side, forcing the driver-side airbag to deploy. Ms. Hopkin’s airbag failed to deploy. Despite the fact that she was a 165-pound adult, the occupant detection sensor determined that the woman was a child, and this prevented the airbag from deploying.
An occupant detection sensor can fail for many reasons. Some may have bugs in the system. Some may fail due to the occupant not sitting correctly in the seat. Others fail because the sensor detects pressure instead of weight which can be altered by the type of seat covering, moisture, temperature, and the occupant’s position and body type.
Defective occupant detection sensors have prompted several recalls in the last decade including the following:
• 2002: 2000 Chevrolet and GMC C/K models were recalled because the driver and passenger’s air bag failed to deploy in some frontal collisions
• 2004: 13,000 Nissan Quest minivans were recalled because the airbag system deactivated even with adults
• 2010: 2010 Hyundai Tucson vehicles and 2005-2007 Nissan Infiniti G35 sedans were recalled for defective air bag sensors
• 2011: 2007-2008 Kia Sorento were recalled because the occupant sensors were turning off the passenger air bags even with adults.
Airbags have significantly decreased the number of deaths related to motor vehicle accidents. Since 1990, airbags have saved a total of 28,244 lives. However, airbags are also responsible for 296 fatalities since 1990, with the majority of those passengers being children. It remains to be seen how many fatalities will result from airbags failing to deploy in high-impact crashes. If you would like more information on defective occupant detection sensors or defective airbag systems, please contact Cole Portis at Cole.Portis@beasleyallen.com or Stephanie Stephens at Stephanie.Stephens@beasleyallen.com.
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Safety Research and Strategies
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