Source: Spontaneous airbag deployments a 'pattern defect' in old - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Spontaneous airbag deployments a "pattern defect" in older vehicles

Source: Spontaneous airbag deployments a 'pattern defect' in older vehicles

(SOURCE: WMC Action News 5) (SOURCE: WMC Action News 5)
(SOURCE: WMC Action News 5) (SOURCE: WMC Action News 5)

He forgot something in his office. He had to have it before he headed home.

So, Greg Manley of Bartlett, Tennessee, left his 1995 Toyota T100 pickup running in his employer's parking lot while he went back inside to fetch what he forgot. 

"And I came back out, and the airbag had deployed," Manley said. "If I had been going down the road, it could have cost me my life or cost somebody else."

His '95 T100 isn't the only one with an airbag that's spontaneously exploded.

The safety database of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) publishes every consumer complaint it receives on every vehicle, regardless of any official recall or safety investigation. Of the 72 complaints on file about the '95 Toyota T100, six tell similar stories to Manley's. Their narratives describe what happened: "driver's airbag deployed while impact or accident involved"; "driver's airbag deployed while waiting at stop light-causing burns to left arm"; "driver's side airbag deployed for no apparent reason."

There is an apparent reason, according to Memphis product liability attorney Pat Ardis of the Wolff Ardis P.C. law firm. "I believe it is a pattern defect," Ardis said.

Ardis is a 41-year litigator who has represented consumers who have been killed or injured by airbag deployments in 30 states. He blamed spontaneous airbag deployments on what he called a pattern defect in the design of the airbag systems of older vehicles. He said in older vehicles, the airbags' computer modules and sensors are exposed to the elements, unlike later models whose components are encased or shielded from the elements.

"And something--water, contaminant, often water, moisture, humidity--closes that switch and bam! The airbag will go off, completely unexpected, and it should not go off," Ardis said. "The older these vehicles are, the more prevalent this is going to be because the containment is breaking down." 

Our inspection of Manley's vehicle revealed its airbag sensors are installed right out in the open, right under the hood, where they can be exposed to water, rain run-off or dirt. An automotive repair source who conducted a diagnostic check of Manley's vehicle at our request on the condition that his company would not be identified determined a potential problem with the airbag's computer module. Title history checks of Manley's vehicle with Carfax, the National Insurance Crime Bureau's VIN Check and the federal government's confirmed his truck has never been in a reported accident and has a clean title history.

A deeper search of the NHTSA complaint database revealed spontaneous airbag deployments are common and go beyond the massive Takata airbag recall. In that recall, more than a dozen auto manufacturers are on pace to recall 70 million vehicles with the Takata airbag worldwide by 2019 for spontaneous deployments that have been implicated in at least ten deaths and more than 100 injuries. The database's complaints included incidences like Manley's of older vehicles that are not part of the Takata recall, yet have airbags that have spontaneously exploded.

Lisa Jarrett of Chicago said she and her family had just pulled out of a driveway when one of the side airbags in her 2003 GMC Envoy inexplicably deployed.

"It sounded like a gunshot. I was shocked," Jarrett said. 

She and her passengers gathered their wits, got back on the road, then suddenly her driver's airbag exploded, too, injuring her right hand. "And the only thing I could think is, 'Oh my God, how many airbags are in this car, and when is the next one going to go off?'"

No safety agency, at any level of government, tracks spontaneous airbag deployments. Unless a vehicle's owner reports one to the NHTSA complaint database, the deployments typically do not generate a record because there's no crash or accident report.

"If I would have been on the interstate or any number of places, and it would have happened and it would have caused an accident, it would have been blamed on the crash and not on the airbag itself," said Manley.

Ardis said older vehicles like the '95 Toyota T100 should be recalled to replace their first-generation airbags. "It should be, but it's too old for a recall," Ardis admitted. "It's a design defect because no one looked far enough down the road in order to avoid the problem."

GM would not comment to NBC Chicago on the specifics of Jarrett’s incident with her '03 GMC Envoy, but said the company is actively engaged in working with Jarrett to find a solution. Jarrett told NBC Chicago a GM representative told her the company will pay off her remaining car payments and destroy the vehicle. 

Manley said Toyota agreed to conduct a "black box" inspection of his '95 T100 in an effort to determine what caused his airbag to deploy. The company declined to discuss the pattern of airbag deployment complaints on file with NHTSA, but in a written statement attributed to Toyota, a spokesperson wrote, "The safety and security of our customers is a top priority. We are currently investigating the incident on this 20-year-old vehicle; however, we cannot comment on the other allegations without more specific information about those vehicles."

Wade Newton is the senior director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It's the Washington-based public policy arm of 12 auto manufacturers, including Toyota. "Unfortunately, the Alliance is not in a position to comment on a single product or automaker," Newton said in an email to the WMC Action News 5 Investigators. "We would have to redirect you to Toyota."

According to and to the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, the federal government mandated dual-front airbags inside all passenger vehicles in 1998. Before then, airbags were optional and, like in the '95 Toyota T100, they were installed only in the steering column of some vehicles. Ardis said there's no defined year range of vehicles that should be recalled for exposed airbag components.

Check either with your vehicle's manufacturer or with your service center for guidance on airbag inspections. If you should experience a spontaneous airbag deployment, report it immediately on NHTSA's complaint database here

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