Air Bag Issues Prompt Industry Wide Recalls
Designed to protect an automobile’s occupants in the event of a crash, air bags have become a major source of concern for auto makers in recent years, prompting recalls covering millions of vehicles.
Designed to protect an automobile’s occupants in the event of a crash, air bags have become a major source of concern for auto makers in recent years, prompting recalls covering millions of vehicles. In the first two months of 2013 alone, Honda and Toyota have issued service actions for more than 1.5 million cars, trucks, and SUVs for issues of improper or premature inflation, or a failure to deploy altogether. Over the previous year, an unprecedented number of recalls were announced correcting potential air bag malfunctions; 22 campaigns spread across 18 different manufacturers. A decrease in quality does not appear to be the principle cause however, but rather a dramatic increase in the number of air bags being used in today’s new cars.
According to accident data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, air bags save as many as 3,000 lives each year by absorbing much of the force of an impact, protecting occupants from the violent energy transferred between vehicles in a collision that could otherwise inflict major and even fatal damages. To maximize their life saving potential, car makers have begun installing air bags throughout the entirety of a vehicle’s occupant comportment. No longer confined to the steering wheel and front passenger dashboard compartment, air bags are now being installed in side doors, roofs, center consoles, hoods, and even in seat belts.
Whereas vehicles from years past would come equipped with one or two air bags at the most, those built today can have as many as ten, a number that is likely to continue to grow. General Motors has begun implementing a front center air bag in their 2013 Buick Enclave sedan, Chevrolet Traverse, and GMC Acadia to prevent drivers and front seat passengers from colliding in the event of a crash. Toyota has developed a back seat air bag in their Scion iQ city car to protect rear passengers in the event of a rear end collision, and Ford has introduced an inflating seat belt in their 2013 Lincoln MKZ sedan and MKT SUV to better distribute the forces of an impact.
Working correctly, these air bags have the potential to dramatically increase occupant safety in the event of an accident. When they malfunction however, they can become a serious danger on their own, increasing the threat of harm despite being designed specifically to prevent it. Issues prompting recalls have ranged from improperly constructed housing units to random inflations while a vehicle is in motion to a complete failure to deploy, even in the event of an accident. In each of these circumstances, air bags have become a source of danger, rather than a lifesaving safety feature.
By virtue of having more air bags within a vehicle, it is only logical that there exists a greater potential for something to go awry. “It’s a complex system,” says Chris Martin, a spokesman for Honda, “and that complexity implies more components.” Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. adds that these modern air bag systems “[rely] on millions of lines of codes to make decisions within milliseconds,” and that, with their increased complexity, malfunctions can appear that “create more injuries than they can prevent.” More parts within a system create more opportunities for failure.
For their safety potential to be fully realized, it will become increasingly important for car makers to design air bag systems that work as intended, and to correct potential issues when they appear. A mountain of recalled vehicles suggests that much work is still needed, though many brands have acknowledged the deficiency and are taking steps to correct it. There is hope that as today’s air bag defects are fixed, wholesale improvements can be made to prevent similar dangers in the future and allow air bags to provide the lifesaving benefits they were designed to offer.
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