Airbags Didn’t Deploy? Here’s What to Do When Airbag Failure Causes an Accident

Reviewed by Louis Patino, JD, DC

Louis Patino, JD, DC
A former U.S. Army Combat Medic, Dr. Louis Patino is a distinguished attorney recognised by Top Attorneys of America, Expertise, and the American Institute of Trial Lawyers. He has a Doctor of Jurisprudence from Texas Southern University and a Doctor of Chiropractic from Parker College of Chiropractic.

It’s easy to take airbags for granted. We rely on this vital safety feature to deploy in an accident and protect us from potentially severe injury. And when they work correctly, they save thousands of lives each year. But what if your airbags fail to deploy in a car accident? You may be entitled to compensation for your injuries, likely made much worse by the airbags not deploying.

This blog explains when airbags are supposed to deploy, what causes airbag failure, what steps you can take to prevent airbag failure, and what to do if your airbags fail to deploy in an accident.

When Should Airbags Deploy?

Airbags are designed to deploy during a collision, such as a front-end crash or a rollover.

In a frontal crash, the airbags should deploy when the front of the vehicle strikes a hazard, whether that’s another car, a tree, a pole, or a barrier. The point is to cushion the occupants, soften the impact, and prevent the driver or passenger from being thrown into the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield.

If you’ve been injured in an accident caused by an airbag failure, you could be entitled to recover compensation. Book a free, no-obligation with our San Antonio and McAllen auto defect lawyer to see where you stand.


In a rollover collision, the airbags should deploy when the vehicle is thrown off balance. This protects occupants from being thrown out of the car as it turns.

But the airbags don’t — or, at least, shouldn’t — deploy at random, so how do they work? Every vehicle has sensors, which are designed to detect when a collision is occurring. If the sensors detect a severe impact from another vehicle or object or the vehicle’s angle is indicative of a rollover accident, the sensors send a signal to the airbag deployment system, resulting in the airbags inflating. This happens almost immediately — within a fraction of a second.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), front airbags will deploy when the crash is the equivalent of hitting a wall between 10 and 16 miles per hour. The higher threshold applies to crashes where occupants wear a seatbelt, as these provide additional protection against injury.

We can quickly see how catastrophic a car accident might be if the airbags fail to deploy. A driver in a front-end collision might smack their head against the steering wheel, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. This might even have a long-term impact, affecting their speech, ability to regulate emotions, and relationships with others.

A driver in a rollover accident might be struck by debris or ejected from their vehicle if the airbags fail to deploy and protect them. They might be thrown into the path of oncoming traffic — which can be fatal — or skid across the road and sustain severe burns or facial trauma, which might leave permanent, visible scarring.

So why might airbags not deploy in a car accident?

Several factors can affect whether or not airbags deploy in an accident. These include:

  • How fast the vehicle was going
  • The type of car accident you’re in and its impact
  • The severity of the impact (for example, a minor bump that knocks a car forward a couple of feet versus a high-speed shunt)
  • The location of the impact.

Sensors can be in perfect working order but fail to send a signal to the airbags to deploy. This is more common in rear-end collisions, as in many of today’s cars, the airbag sensors are located at the front. If the impact is minor, the airbags can fail to deploy. This might happen if you are rear-ended by a slow-moving car which doesn’t have enough impact to trigger the sensor.

While rear-end collisions are generally less severe than front-end or rollover collisions, they can still result in severe injuries that require lengthy treatment and rehabilitation. Rear-end collisions often cause a concussion or whiplash-type injuries, as the unexpected shunt causes a driver or passenger’s head or neck, respectively, to rapidly jolt forward and back.

When a vehicle is stationary or moving at a slow speed and struck by a much heavier or faster vehicle, the sensor may detect the collision and deploy the airbags.

But what about when airbags should deploy but fail to do so?

What Causes Airbag Failure?

Airbag failure can happen for several reasons, including manufacturing defects, electrical problems, and deactivation.

Manufacturing defects: Airbags are complex devices made up of many different parts, including:

  • The airbag itself, which is usually made from a synthetic fabric coated in a surfactant. This substance helps the airbag to deploy evenly and reduce the risk of burns.
  • The inflator, inside the airbag. When the deployment sensors detect an accident, they send a signal to the inflator to release a gas — typically nitrogen or argon — into the airbag, which causes it to inflate rapidly.

If any of these parts are faulty or incorrectly assembled, the airbag may not work. 

Electrical problems: Likewise, a problem with the electrical system or sensors can cause airbags to fail to deploy. Severe crashes can even sever the wires that control the airbag system, causing it to deactivate when it’s needed the most.

Deactivation: Newer vehicles may have airbag systems that automatically deactivate passenger airbags when they cannot detect a passenger or if the passenger is a child. This is because airbags can be incredibly dangerous to children, capable of causing death or brain injury. Side airbag systems will also automatically deactivate airbags when a child sits too close to them.

Finally, an airbag might fail to deploy if you’re driving a used car that has previously been in a crash and the airbags weren’t replaced. You can reset some older airbags, but modern airbags are designed for single use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends motorists replace deployed airbags immediately after a crash at an authorized service center and not drive their car until they’ve done so. Unfortunately, you might not know this is the case until you’re in a crash.

It’s vital to regularly inspect and maintain your vehicle to ensure that all safety features are functioning correctly. This includes following your car manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule and having any issues repaired promptly.

However, it’s not always possible to prevent airbag failure. If you’re in an accident and the airbags did not deploy when they should have, you may have a legal compensation claim.

What to Do If Your Airbags Did Not Deploy in an Accident

If you have been involved in an accident and your airbags did not deploy, there are several steps you should take:

Seek Medical Attention

The priority after any accident should be to seek medical attention for any injuries you or your passengers may have sustained. Even if you don’t think you were seriously injured, it’s important to get checked out by a medical professional. Some injuries, such as concussion and whiplash, don’t present symptoms immediately but can have a long-term impact on your health.

Getting checked out ensures you receive any treatment you need and gives you a record of when your injuries occurred. This can be key if you are entitled to claim compensation, as it proves your injuries happened because of your accident and not later in an unrelated event.

Call the Police

Each state sets its own rules on when you need to report a car accident to the police. In Texas, you must report an accident if it causes death, injury, or property damage of more than $1,000. If the accident results in a fatality or injury, you must report it immediately. Otherwise, you have 10 days to report the accident.

When law enforcement arrives at the accident scene, they’ll contain the area and speak to those involved and any witnesses. They’ll compile their findings into a crash report document, which can be a vital piece of evidence in your claim. If you report to the police officer that your airbag failed to deploy, they will note it in their report, which makes it harder for the other party to dispute.

Determine What Caused the Failure

It’s also crucial to understand what caused the failure. This can help you determine whether you have a compensation claim.

For example, if you were in a high-speed crash, the sensors should have detected you were in danger and deployed the airbags appropriately. This indicates that a defect or malfunction may be responsible.

It can be possible to visually inspect your vehicle for signs of damage to the airbags or sensors but note that you may be observing damage caused by the impact. A mechanic may be able to determine if the damage was present before the crash.

On the other hand, if your airbags didn’t deploy because you struck a curb, pothole, or small animal, you wouldn’t be able to claim for an airbag failure as airbags are not designed to deploy in these types of collisions. However, you may be able to claim from other parties depending on who caused your crash, such as a reckless driver or an organization responsible for maintaining the road.

Consult with the manufacturer or dealership: If you believe that the airbag failure was due to a problem with the vehicle, you can contact the manufacturer or dealership to report the issue and ask for an investigation.

Notify the Manufacturer or Dealership

If you believe that the airbag failure was due to a manufacturing defect or problem with the vehicle, you should notify the manufacturer and the dealership you purchased the vehicle from (if applicable).

It’s important to notify the dealership in case the issue is not an anomaly and vehicles need to be recalled or immediately recalled, as was the case with millions of Takata airbags in what the NHTSA called “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history”.

Gather Evidence

If you believe your airbags failed to deploy because of a defect and you wish to claim compensation, you need to gather evidence.

It’s worth mentioning that you’ll likely be able to claim compensation from multiple parties — the person or company that caused your crash and the manufacturer or dealership responsible for the airbag failing to deploy. In some cases, you may be able to recover compensation from a mechanic or service center, such as if they check your airbags and spot damage or a defect and fail to repair it.

Let’s say you’re driving down the road, and a motorist heading in the opposite direction is weaving. They weave in front of you as they approach you, resulting in a head-on collision. Your airbags only partially deploy, causing you to sustain a traumatic brain injury. When the police arrive, they discover the other driver was driving under the influence (DUI). An investigation of your vehicle reveals that the inflator was faulty.

In this case, you’d be entitled to compensation from the drunk driver (who caused the accident by being reckless) and the airbag manufacturer (for the deployment failure).

You’re entitled to recover the costs of medical treatment, lost wages from being unable to work, pain and suffering, and more. Evidence to recover may include:

  • Bills for medical treatment
  • Payslips to prove your income (so you can recover your lost wages)
  • Receipts or quotes for car repairs
  • A copy of your crash report
  • Photographs of the scene showing vehicle damage and how the accident happened
  • Contact details of any witnesses to the accident
  • Photographs or videos of your injuries.

Proving airbag damage can be difficult, but it can be helpful to take photographs of your car’s interior and retain any documentation provided by your mechanic that indicates a defect was present. You should also gather your maintenance records to prove you had your vehicle inspected regularly.

Consult a Personal Injury Lawyer

Your next step should be to consult a personal injury lawyer. Even the most straightforward of crashes, where it’s clear who is at fault, can be complicated when seeking compensation. The other side’s attorney may dispute your version of events or challenge your evidence. Then, they might lowball you during negotiations to tempt you to settle quickly — even though you’re likely entitled to significantly more.

When you’re entitled to recover compensation for an airbag failure, hiring an attorney becomes even more important. It’s not enough to prove that your airbags didn’t deploy — you must also show that the defect was present before you even received your vehicle and that it caused or contributed to your injuries.

In a severe crash, a manufacturer may claim that you would have sustained similar injuries even if the airbags did deploy, and they may be unwilling to accept liability.

Our car accident lawyers in San Antonio and McAllen can help you determine if you have a claim, speak to witnesses, gather evidence, and negotiate a fair settlement on your behalf. Should negotiations fail, we can proceed to trial and present your case in front of a jury.

How to Protect Yourself from Airbags Not Deploying

If your airbags have a design or manufacturing defect, you may not know about it until it’s too late and you’re already in a crash. However, you can take steps to protect yourself, minimize the impact, or even reduce the likelihood of an airbag deployment failure.

Wear a seatbelt: There’s a reason seatbelts are the primary safety feature in a vehicle — they can significantly reduce the risk of injury in an accident. Even if your airbags don’t deploy, a seatbelt can prevent you from striking the dashboard or even being thrown from your vehicle.

Choose a car with reliable airbags: When shopping for a new car, research the safety ratings and reliability of the vehicle. Ideally, you want a car with a good track record for airbag performance and overall safety. If you’re buying a used car, do due diligence — what’s the car’s damage history? If the airbags have previously been deployed, make sure they have been replaced. 

Follow the manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations: Staying on top of vehicle maintenance and repairs can help prevent airbag failure and other safety issues. Make sure you follow the recommended maintenance schedule from your manufacturer.

Know your legal rights: If you have been injured in a car accident because your airbags didn’t deploy, you may be entitled to compensation. A personal injury attorney can explain your legal rights and next steps.

Airbags are a vital safety feature in modern vehicles, but when they don’t work, they can result in horrific injuries. If you’ve been in a car accident that wasn’t your fault — however it happened — you might be able to file a claim. Contact our personal injury lawyers in McAllen and San Antonio today for a free, no-obligation case review.

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