The facts of the two cases are similar. Both victims – the first, and the 21st – were women. And both lives were taken in the midst of what had otherwise been considered a survivable accident. To wit, airbags were designed to help occupants survive accidents which otherwise may claim their lives with just the use of lap belts and shoulder harnesses. Airbags, in turn were originally designed to make otherwise fatal crashes, survivable.
The Takata airbag failure debacle has turned that template on its ear, with worsening odds given the sheer depth and breadth of the airbag recall.
The first airbag injury victim was just 18 when she died
Ashley Parham was 18 years old and just a few days beyond her high school graduation at Carl Albert High School when the Oklahoma volunteer and cheerleader died. According to News9.com (05/28/09) in Oklahoma City she had gone to fetch her brother from football practice in her 2001 Honda Accord, and was driving through the parking lot looking for a place to park. An investigation concluded she had not been speeding, and was properly restrained with a lap and shoulder belt.
As it happened, Parham dinged another car. Not hard, and certainly not a collision that would have resulted in any injury to the occupant of the car. But the airbag deployed anyway, erupting with such force that it blew apart the metal airbag casing and sent shards of razor-sharp metal shrapnel from the shattered casing towards the hapless teen, ripping into her chest and neck. The neck injury resulted in a laceration to her carotid artery.
Parham bled to death in a matter of minutes, while still strapped into her car. The police chief for the local force told Reuters (01/13/14) at the time that emergency-room doctors treating Parham initially suspected a gunshot wound, given the severity of the teen’s injuries. It was only when they removed the shards of metal from her neck and chest – and a subsequent investigation matched them up with the now-destroyed airbag inflator casing – that the genesis for her injuries, and the cause of her death came into clearer focus.
The teen, having just graduated from high school, should have survived
The tragedy, said Brandon Clabes in comments to Reuters, is that the low-speed collision with another car “was just a minor traffic accident…that most people just walk away from with no injuries at all.”
Sadly, it was only the beginning. Reuters reports that six months following the death of Ashley Parham, Gurjit Rathore collided with a mail truck on Christmas Eve in 2009. The low-speed collision triggered the Takata-supplied defective airbag in Rathore’s 2001 Honda Accord. The force of the airbag deployment, in a similar event which befell Parham, blew apart the metal casing of the airbag inflator, sending shrapnel flying directly towards Rathore. The 33-year-old bled to death when the metal shards severed arteries and blood vessels in her neck.
Prior to Parham’s death in 2009, Honda had already identified a problem with its Takata-supplied airbags and had issued a recall – although Parham’s 2001 Honda Accord wasn’t initially part of the recall. Following Parham’s death, the recall was expanded – and Parham’s 2001 Accord was part of the expanded recall. Sadly, it was too late to save Parham – or, for that matter, Rathore. Both families launched defective airbag lawsuits and settled with Honda and Takata out of court.
Since then, the defective airbag recall has been expanded multi-fold, with millions of vehicles involved worldwide. At issue are airbags manufactured by Takata that use a less-expensive but more volatile propellant that becomes unstable with age, and in climates with high humidity. Takata eventually grew to become the largest supplier of airbags in the world, thanks to a lower price point Takata was in a position to offer manufacturers driven by the switch to the cheaper, but more volatile ammonium nitrate.
Police initially thought Hien Tran’s airbag injuries were caused by a stabbing
Airbag injuries have proven catastrophic. In 2014 Hien Tran was driving home from her family’s nail salon in her Honda Accord when she was involved in a relatively minor traffic accident in Orlando. Her airbag deployed, and when police arrived on the scene they couldn’t understand what they were seeing: the driver had suffered deep lacerations in the right side of her neck, resulting in massive blood loss. But the incident caused no windows to shatter, and there was no broken glass. According to The New York Times (10/20/2014), police developed initial hypotheses that Tran had been stabbed by an unknown assailant.
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There are now 22 documented deaths worldwide and hundreds of injuries
And now, there are 22 victims worldwide – with the Detroit News (01/30/18) carrying a report from the Associated Press (AP) that a driver in Malaysia was killed from a defective airbag when a 2004 Honda vehicle was involved in a traffic accident on New Year’s Day. The victim has not been identified.