Drivers Startled, Injured by Exploding Airbags

No safety agency tracks data on how frequently "spontaneous deployment" occurs

In most cases, they are a symbol of safety: the airbags in automobiles designed to protect you in a crash. But now, some drivers report their airbags doing quite the opposite, and exploding without warning.

"I thought I could feel my heart coming out of my chest," Lisa Jarrett told NBC Chicago after she says two airbags in her car recently deployed without warning. "It was shocking."

The Chicago resident said she was in Lansing that day in September, driving her aunt and 5-year old son in her 2003 GMC Envoy XL. She said there was no collision, not even a pothole or curb nearby to hit when the first airbag exploded.

"I was not speeding. I had not even gotten up to 25 mph," Jarrett recalled. It was the passenger side airbag that had deployed next to her aunt, Gwen Harlan. It was a noise so startling they both thought it might have been a gunshot.

"When it came out and hit my arm, I go, 'Oh my God!" Harlan said.

The trio was shaken, but not hurt, Jarrett said, so they continued on their way. Minutes later, a second airbag deployed, this time, they said, it was the driver’s steering wheel airbag.

"And all I can think is, 'Oh my God, how many airbags are in this car? And when is the next one going to go off?'" Jarrett said, and explained how she got her family out of the car and then called for help.

Was her experience a fluke? Complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and online suggest random airbag deployment is not uncommon, and affects a number of makes and models. Several recalls connected to the problem have been issued, and just last month a class action lawsuit against Honda was filed.

We wanted to find out how often random deployment occurs, but there’s no way to do that. No safety agency tracks the data. These incidents are virtually invisible: because there is no actual accident to report, no reports are filed.

'What's happening is that these problems are falling in between kind of a gap. So, the federal regulators that deal with safety…they're not going to look into a problem that's not causing death," said safety advocate Sean Kane.

Kane, a frequent critic of carmakers, said when random deployment does happen, manufacturers often point the finger at drivers.

"They'll frequently say, 'You must have hit a big pothole.' And they'll look at some tiny little scratch under the car and say, 'Ah!' So the one party responsible for the defect -- that is, the manufacturers -- are the ones who are getting away scot-free on this."

Not free? The cost of the loaner vehicle Lisa Jarrett had to pay for out-of-pocket while GM inspects her car, a process she said they told her could take 60 days.

At our request, accident reconstruction expert Tom Green took a look at Jarrett’s Envoy. He said the airbag module and the car’s black box were both incommunicado.

"The fact that there is something internally wrong with the module that I can't communicate with it. I can't say what's wrong with it, but it seems there is something wrong internally with the module," Green told Target 5.

He says this is unusual -- that most modules survive even the severest of crashes. "I've taken ones out of cars that were burned, and as long as the housing is intact, you can still get data."

With no answers, and no money to pay for a loaner car to transport her family, Lisa Jarrett says she now wants to warn other about the problem she never saw coming. "Why did they deploy? We have no idea what's going on… My son was in the car! That could have ended so much worse."

GM would not comment on the specifics of Jarrett’s incident, but said the company is actively engaged in working with Jarrett to find a solution. Jarrett said a GM representative told her the company will pay off her remaining car payments and then plans to destroy the vehicle. She said  the company would not say if it will cover her loaner costs or medical bills. She is now consulting an attorney.

We reached out to Honda for comment on the class action lawsuit, but received no comment.

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