February 11, 2013
Air bags may save lives in car crashes, but increasingly, they're becoming safety problems themselves?at least when it comes to an increasing frequency of recalls.
Already this year, Honda and Toyota have launched air-bag-related recalls covering 1.5 million vehicles. That follows a record year for recalls involving air bags?22 spread across 18 brands in 2012.
The problems don't appear to be that air bags are any worse than they've ever been. Rather, there are more of them being packed into cars. They're in new places and are more sophisticated. Together, those factors add up to more recalls, and more vehicles affected: Since 2011, air bag recalls have involved nearly 7.75 million vehicles, more than the previous eight years combined.
"It's a complex system, and that complexity implies more components," says Honda spokesman Chris Martin.
There's no debate about air bags' effectiveness. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that air bags saved 2,788 lives in one sample year. At issue is whether they'll inflate when they're supposed to, or whether they'll cause injuries on their own.
That was the fear with Honda's recall last month. It recalled 748,481 vehicles?2009 to 2013 model year Pilot SUVs and 2011 to 2013 Odyssey minivans?for missing rivets on an air bag cover. The driver could be hurt if the air bag deploys when all six rivets aren't in place.
Toyota's recall of 887,709 vehicles?2003 and 2004 Toyota Corollas, Matrixes and Pontiac Vibes?centered on a circuit board that can short out due to interference from other electric components. If that happens, the automaker warns in its filing to regulators, an air bag could accidentally deploy.
While both problems were caught by engineers before they could injure passengers, that's not always the case. In recalling 744,822 Jeeps last November, Chrysler Group noted 126 inadvertent air bag deployments caused 59 minor injuries in 2002 to 2003 Libertys and 89 deployments caused 22 minor injuries in 2002 to 2004 Grand Cherokees. The problem involved faulty circuit boards.
Air bags inflating without a crash is one problem, when detectors that are supposed to sense a crash trigger the air bags, says Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies. Sometimes, bags inflate prematurely, then deflate before a person is cushioned.
At the same time, automakers are making complex air bag systems. They are:
Adding more. Automakers continue to pack them in. The 2013 Dodge Dart has 10. Toyota's newest RAV4 crossover has eight.
Finding new places. General Motors has the first front-center air bags in the 2013 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia to keep the driver and front-seat passenger from colliding in a crash. Toyota has the first rear air bag to protect back-seat passengers in a rear-end crash in the tiny Scion iQ.
Incorporating new technology. Ford's Lincoln unit is putting inflating seat belts in the rear of its 2013 MKZ sedan and MKT SUV. They put an air bag in a shoulder belt to better distribute forces.
While the advances are sure to save lives and lessen injuries, there's more that can go wrong.
"You are relying on millions of lines of codes to make decisions within milliseconds," Kane says. With all the snafus, some air bags hold the potential to "create more injuries than they can prevent."
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