When an airbag should deploy depends on many different factors. If the airbag did not deploy, and should have, you may have a "failure to deploy" or "non-deployment" case. In such a situation, the air bag would have deployed if the air bag crash sensor or other components had not failed.
Failure of a crash sensor (or the wires connecting a crash sensor to the electronic control unit) often causes the air bag to not deploy. If the passenger air bag deployed, but the driver air bag did not, the vehicle may contain a defective "clockspring" or coil that sits under the steering wheel.
Sometimes air bags don't deploy because the system was not adequately crash tested when it was designed. One common example is crashes into trees or poles. Another example is when side air bags or rollover air bags fail to deploy in side crashes or rollovers.
Newly discovered defects in advanced air bag systems prevent deployment because the system did not detect a passenger sitting in the seat.
Should the air bag have deployed?
If the air bag deployed, but should not have deployed, you may have an "inadvertent" or unwarranted low-speed deployment. Inadvertent deployments can occur even if the vehicle was not involved in an accident and are often caused by air bag sensor or other electrical system defects. In some cases, even a minor action such as turning your key in the ignition can trigger air bag deployment.
Some manufacturers used inappropriate sensor combinations that are overly susceptible to low-speed, localized impacts. Other manufacturers used inappropriate sensors and/or test programs that allowed air bags to deploy even when the vehicle struck a pothole or curb.
Did the air bag deploy late?
In a late deployment case, the air bag deploys later than it should, allowing a person to move toward the air bag (sometimes called "out-of-position"). The extreme force from an air bag at close range can cause catastrophic injuries. Late deployments often occur in minor accidents and collisions that differ from the manufacturers' crash testing.
At least one manufacturer implemented an electrical device in an attempt to fix another problem, but which caused late deployments under certain accident circumstances.
Often, such late deployments can be prevented using additional sensors and/or changes to the algorithms of electronic sensors. In some cases, the vehicle's "black box" can confirm that a late deployment took place.
Did the air bag have specific safety features?
Because air bags can deploy at speeds of more than 200 mph, they should include certain safety features to reduce the risk of injury during deployment.
Important safety features include air bag inflators that inflate less forcefully, tethers that significantly reduce "bag slap" injuries to the face and eyes, and vents that decrease pressure inside the air bag. In some cases, manufacturing defects and quality control problems can cause your injuries.
In addition to safety features, the air bag system must also work together with the other parts of the car. For example, air bag crash sensors depend on the vehicle having a good structure or frame so the signal is received soon enough to avoid a late deployment.
Also, the instrument panel (I/P) or "dash" needs to be designed so that the knees and legs are not injured, while keeping the body properly positioned. And, when the air bag deploys, it must not create additional hazards for other components.
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