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Driver hurt after seatbelt, airbag failed in crash. What happened?

Published October 1, 2012
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Eric Lai answers readers’ auto questions every week for Wheels.

Q: I was in a serious collision in my new 2012 Hyundai Veloster. However, the driver’s seatbelt didn’t lock and the front airbags didn’t deploy, causing me to slam my head on the steering wheel upon impact.

It was a high speed (80 – 90 km/hr) crash with a stalled vehicle on the Gardiner Expressway. Both my wife and I will need physiotherapy for major neck and back pain.

Why didn’t those two safety mechanisms activate?

I’ve contacted a personal injury lawyer.

A: Chad Heard, public relations manager for Hyundai Auto Canada Corp., replies:

We’re more accustomed to hearing praise about our safety systems, so when we receive a complaint about a critical system failure, we waste no time in dispatching a member of our field staff to conduct an examination of the vehicle.

In your reader’s case, our inspection found no issues with the vehicle’s restraint system, including supplemental restraints. While the impact energy was significant enough to result in an insurance “write-off” of the vehicle, the front airbags did not deploy because the deployment threshold was not met due to the narrow offset nature of the collision and the high degree of vehicle rotation that typically accompanies such collisions. Some additional energy was also dissipated through deformation of the energy absorbing “crumple zone” of the parked vehicle in this case.

It’s worth reminding everyone that airbags are designed to serve as a supplementary safety system. The first line of defense is provided by the front frame rails and other supporting structures, the so-called “crumple zone,” which is engineered to absorb a significant amount of the impact energy, allowing properly-restrained occupants to “ride down” the collision.

As unfortunate as this reader’s collision was, the crumple zone of his Veloster did its job admirably. The passenger compartment was found to be intact allowing both the driver and passenger to walk away safely.

Toronto litigation lawyer Greg Chang (www.bcbarristers.com) replies:

Regardless of who caused the crash, you can claim for some benefits (called Accident Benefits) from your own insurance company. You may have extended health/insurance coverage through work (including short or long-term disability) which you could access.

Any further claim for injury compensation would be you claiming against: (1) the other driver; and/or (2) your automaker (i.e. faulty airbag).

Whether you recover money from the other driver is guided by who was at fault for the collision. A claim against your automaker would require expert testimony to establish that a fault or defect, if any, played a part in this incident or your injuries. A court settlement, if any, would likely be reduced by the degree of fault on your part for this collision occurring.

Eric Lai adds:

The Hyundai driver was charged by police in relation to this crash – which he intends to fight in court.

I’m not an expert in airbags, but I do know they aren’t intended to deploy in all incidents.

Generally, in an offset collision, the vehicle is still moving at speed after contact. If the driver airbag did deploy, steering control needed to bring the vehicle to a safe stop could be lost and might result in a fatal rollover, whereas the initial glancing impact was likely survivable.

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