All Chad H. of Charlottesville, Virginia, wanted was a safe vehicle for his family. And that's what he thought he found when he purchased a new 2005 Ford Expedition.
"I thought this was a safe vehicle because of all the claims Ford makes about its safety record," he says.
But the secure feeling that Expedition gave him shattered in a matter of seconds on May 29, 2005.
Chad was involved in a head-on collision and the Expedition's frontal airbag failed to deploy.
"I was going 35-45 mph on a rural, two-lane road," he recalls. "The other driver, who was in a Ford Explorer, was going about the same speed, and came into my lane and hit me head-on. His airbag deployed. Mine did not.
"I'm convinced I would have fewer injuries if my airbag had deployed," says the chiropractor, who suffered whiplash in the accident and still has ringing in his ears. "When I bought the car, the salesman kept talking about how Ford was using Volvo technology. I thought it was a safe car, but that didn't show (in this accident). I have a seven-year-old daughter. What if she'd been in the car with me?"
A special ConsumerAffairs.com investigation uncovered more than 160 consumers nationwide who share Chad's concerns about airbags failing to deploy in serious accidents.
Some of those consumers own new vehicles, like Chad. Others have older models, but they're the original owners.
Many, who suffered the most debilitating injuries or lost a loved one, drove used cars. One consumer drove a rental car.
Our investigation found these accident happened in cars, trucks, minivans, and SUV's made by Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler,Mitsubishi, Kia, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Honda (follow links to carmakers' responses).
We also learned that authorities who responded to many of the consumers' crash scenes -- including paramedics, firefighters, state troopers and tow truck drivers -- expressed concerns about their airbags' failures to deploy.
New And Original-Owner Vehicles
This story focuses on the problems and injuries suffered by consumers with new and originally-owned older vehicles because their airbags failed to deploy.
They're consumers who are angry, scared, and confused because their airbags -- a safety feature the federal government has required in all passenger vehicles since 1998 -- didn't protect them when they needed them the most.
"I'm convinced there's something wrong with this vehicle and someone is going to die," says Susan B. of Norwalk, California. She's the original owner of a 2001 Chevrolet Suburban, and her side-impact airbags didn't deploy when she was broadsided by another vehicle.
"I had just started through a green light when another person ran a red light going approximately 40 mph and hit me," says Susan, who suffered neck, shoulder, back, hip, and knee injuries in the accident. "I paid extra for side airbags so I could be safe, and I was under the impression they were there to protect me. But I don't feel safe anymore."
Neither do many of the other consumers we interviewed.
They say no one has told them why their airbags didn't deploy -- and they're worried about what will happen if they're in another accident.
Most of their accidents weren't minor fender-benders, either. They were serious ones -- the type most drivers would expect an airbag to deploy: broadside collisions and head-on crashes.
"A Perfect Scenario For Airbags To Deploy"
Scott A. of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for example, suffered a broken knee, cuts and bruises, in a head-on collision. But his airbags didn't deploy.
"I was driving a six-month old 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee when I avoided a deer and hit a tree straight-on going 35-40 mph," he says, adding the accident totaled his SUV. "It was absolutely a head-on collision. You could not have asked for a more perfect scenario for the airbags to deploy."
Airbags Fail in Broadside Collision
Mark T. of Mount Morris, Michigan, sustained injuries to his neck, back, arm, and shoulder when he broadsided another vehicle in his new 2004 Chevrolet van.
"I was coming down the road when an older woman pulled out right in front of me," he says. "I didn't have time to brake and I broadsided her going 45 mph. I hit her directly in the driver's door.
"My airbags didn't go off and they should have," adds Mark, who used to work at the General Motors Assembly plant in Flint, Michigan. "I'm a mechanic and everything that happened in this accident was well within the operational parameters for an airbag to deploy. Those airbags are designed to initiate at 15 mph; I was going 45. I think there should be a recall of this vehicle because of the airbags."
Head-On Collision With Guardrail
Charles M., of Galveston, Texas, suffered head injuries and three broken vertebrae during an accident in his 2004 Dodge Quad Cab.
"I hit a guard rail head-on going 70 mph, my truck then rolled three times, and my front airbags didn't deploy," says Charles, who spent five months in the hospital and still has vision problems. "I should have been killed. That's what the tow truck driver said to my son-in-law. The airbags failed me ... they put my life in risk. My question is: 'Why have a safety feature if it doesn't work?'"
Car Is Hit Multiple Times
That's a question Teresa H. of Columbiana, Alabama, has wondered since she had an accident in her new 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer.
"A lady ran a red light and hit my car several times," says Teresa, who underwent neck surgery after the accident. "She was going about 40 mph when she hit my car and caused it to spin around. My car was hit on the left front side, the right front side, and the back.
"I am complaining because the airbags did not deploy. I was hit very hard ... and no one has explained to me why my airbags didn't deploy. Mitsubishi sent me a brochure that said airbags should deploy in 'near frontal collisions.' That's misleading. My accident fit that category and my airbags didn't deploy."
Randy R. of Brownsville, Oregon, is still in pain from the injuries he suffered during a head-on collision in his 2004 Dodge 3500 4x4 Quad Cab pickup.
"I broke my back, my nose, and have facial injuries from hitting the steering wheel," he says. "I also have chest injuries and ribs that are dislocated and bruised."
Randy says the accident happened in Washington State when he blacked out after taking some prescription medicine.
"I went off the road going about 60 mph, went up on the bank, and was airborne. The truck came straight down and landed nose first into the bank. It was literally standing on its nose.
"I contacted DaimlerChrysler and they sent an independent firm to inspect the pickup and take a reading off the computer," he adds. "Then I got a letter from Dodge saying there was nothing wrong with the airbag system -- they said the airbags didn't deploy because I had an 'angular wreck.' But the police report shows it was a head-on collision."
Mechanics at a local Dodge dealership also inspected Randy's truck, and they discovered a problem with the pickup's airbag system.
"They said there's supposed to be a light on the dash that tells you the system isn't working," he says. "When you turn on the car, the computer is supposed to check the airbag and plug that information into the system. But they (the dealership) said that wasn't working and that's why the airbag failed to deploy."
He adds: "I didn't get killed in this accident, but I was hurt pretty badly. What worries me now is that I have five other Dodge pickups and I wonder if the airbags in those are going to fail?'"
Why Didn't The Airbags Deploy?
But why didn't the airbags deploy in these and other accidents? Are the airbags defective? Should the vehicles be recalled?
We posed those questions to the top car and safety experts in the country, including ones with various automakers, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
They all agreed the airbags in new vehicles seldom fail to deploy when they're supposed to give consumers added protection.
Airbags In New Vehicles Rarely Fail
"In the crash testing we do, airbags are very reliable and only rarely do we discover a problem," says Russ Rader, director of media relations for the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS). His non-profit agency tests new vehicles and reports any problems the automakers.
"In most of those cases, the problems we discover are airbags deploying too late ... we rarely hear about airbags failing to deploy at all."
Nationally recognized car expert Richard Diklich of Missouri agrees.
"My experience has been that about 75 percent of the time people have insufficient knowledge about their airbags to know if they should or shouldn't have gone off," he says. "It's pretty rare to have a non-deployment case ... it isn't something that happens that often."
If that's the case, why didn't the airbags deploy in these accidents?
Diklich and other car experts say only a crash scene investigator -- someone who has inspected the vehicle, the accident site, and all the data -- can determine if an airbag failed to deploy when it should have gone off.
Every accident, they say, has a different scenario. And a different set of circumstances.
And all those factors must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Misconceptions About Airbags
Car experts say many consumers have misconceptions about how their airbags work and when they should deploy.
Specifically, they say consumers don't understand:
• Air bags are not designed to deploy in every accident;
• Certain criteria -- or deployment thresholds -- must be met for airbags to deploy;
• A totaled vehicle is not an indicator of whether an airbag should deploy;
• Air bags are a supplemental restraint system. They are not designed to replace seat belts.
When Should Airbags Deploy?
Most vehicles on the road today have two types of airbags: frontal and side-impact.
Frontal airbags are designed to protect the occupants' heads and chests from hitting the steering wheel, instrument panel, or windshield, experts say.
Side-impact airbags are designed to protect the occupants' heads and/or necks from striking objects inside or outside the vehicle in side impact crashes.
Air bag systems have three main components -- an airbag module, crash sensors, and a diagnostic unit -- that determine if and when the airbags should deploy.
"The airbag system is tuned to deploy when it thinks there's enough energy in the crash to cause harm," says the director of NHTSA's office of data acquisition and the former head of the agency's special crash investigations division. He didn't want his name used in this story.
"You have to look at the energy in the crash. If you're doing 30 mph and you lift your foot off the petal and gradually slow down to zero, do you need you airbag? No.
"But if you're going 30 mph and strike a hard object, like a tree or wall, we'd expect to see your airbags deploy," he says, adding his agency investigates 4,000-5,000 accidents a year.
"If you drive down the road and sideswipe something at 30 mph, you might not have high enough energy to trigger an airbag deployment. The question you have to ask is: 'Is there enough energy from the crash to trigger an airbag deployment?'"
Frontal dual airbags
Side airbags offering torso protection
Side airbags to protect the head or head and torso
Photos courtesy of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Car experts say frontal airbags are designed to deploy in moderate or severe crashes that equal hitting a solid barrier going about 8-14 mph. NHTSA says that's the equivalent of hitting a parked car of similar size -- going about 16-28 miles per hour. A parked car absorbs some of the crash's energy, NHTSA says.
Some car makers have different "thresholds" that determine when an airbag should deploy, experts say.
Those thresholds often depend on whether the occupants are wearing their seat belts. The 8-14 mph threshold is generally designed for unbelted passengers; it's higher for belted passenger.
NHTSA say the deployment threshold is lower for unbelted passengers because they continue to move forward -- at the vehicle's original speed -- until their movement is stopped by the steering wheel, instrument panel, or windshield.
Car experts also say there's a 30 degree angle -- on either side of a vehicle's front center -- that generally must be hit for the frontal airbags to deploy.
Car experts also say frontal airbags are not designed to deploy in side impacts, rear impacts, or rollover crashes. Also, these airbags deploy only once -- in about 1/20th of a second -- and deflate immediately. That means they offer no protection if the vehicle is hit -- or rolls over -- multiple times in the same accident.
What about side-impact airbags?
Experts say these airbags deploy when the vehicle is hit on its side. Sensors detect if the crash is severe enough for the airbags to deploy.
Side-impact airbags are usually smaller than frontal ones and deploy quickly from the vehicles' seatback, door, or roof to protect front and -- sometimes -- rear-seat passengers.
Some side-curtain airbags may stay inflated longer than other airbags to protect passengers in rollover accidents. This can also prevent passengers from being ejected from the vehicle.
NHTSA says on rare occasions -- and if the crash involves multiple impacts -- the side airbags on the non-struck side of the vehicle may deploy.
Why Didn't My Airbag Deploy?
"I totaled my car, so why didn't my airbag deploy?"
That's a question car experts say they often hear, and it illustrates another misconception many consumers have about their airbags.
Expert says there's no correlation between the crumpled remains of a totaled vehicle and an airbag deployment.
"A totaled vehicle is a monetary measure of whether it would cost more to repair the vehicle than the vehicle is worth," says Diklich, who showed us several smashed cars and trucks during our interview and explained why the airbags did not deploy in some of those crashes.
"I've seen cases where an insurance company has totaled a vehicle and the airbags didn't deploy. This has happened in rollover accidents, and the airbags should not have deployed."
Jim Khoury, manager of advanced safety development for General Motors North America, says he's heard from consumers who are upset because their airbags didn't deploy in accidents that transformed their vehicles into crumpled piles of metal and broken glass.
But there's a scientific -- and safety -- reason their vehicles crushed during those accidents, he says.
"Your vehicle is made to crush, it should crush, and it's crushing to protect you," he explains. "The idea is to minimize the force on your body ... and absorb energy efficiently so that when you hit something, the structure crushes as evenly as possible. There's a whole science behind this technology."
Seat Belts Are Primary
Car experts say some consumers have the dangerous misconception that their airbags give them so much protection they don't need to wear their seat belts.
That's a false -- and potentially deadly -- notion.
"Your seat belts and your airbags work in unison," car expert Diklich says, adding the seat belts hold you in the proper position, which is critical for the airbags to do their job. "But your seat belt is your primary restraint system and your airbag is a supplemental -- secondary -- restraint system."
GM's Khoury echoes that message.
"Air bags supplement seat belts in severe crashes," he says. "They work together. Your seat belt, though, is your primary restraint system. Seat belts save 40,000 lives a year; airbags save approximately 4,000 a year. That shows which restraint system is the most effective and why we tell drivers to please wear their seat belts."
Advanced Airbag Technology
Advances in science and technology, experts say, have made the airbags in most vehicles smarter and safer than earlier models.
Some of these smarter airbags include:
• Advanced frontal airbags, which are designed to reduce injuries and deaths that happen when children and small stature adults sit too close to the airbags when they deployed. NHTSA estimates that more than 100 children have died in these types of airbag-related accidents in recent years;
• Air bags that deploy at different degrees of force -- based on the severity of the crash and the occupants' weight. Experts say most vehicles also have special systems that prevent airbags from deploying if the sensors detect a child in the front passenger seat. Air bags can be dangerous to children 12 and younger because they inflate at speeds up to 100 mph, and that force can severely injure or kill a child who sits too close to the airbag;
• Computer-controlled airbag systems, which let car makers adjust the algorithms that determine when an airbag should deploy. Some earlier model airbags deployed too easily -- or when they weren't needed;
• Rollover canopy systems, which determine if there's going to be a rollover, how fast the vehicle is going to roll, and then deploy the side curtains if needed. The curtains drop down and are designed to stay in place up to six seconds.
What If My Airbag Failed To Deploy?
Despite all these advances, experts say there are still a few, ra