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The Defective GM Ignition Switch: How It Affects Proper Airbag Operation

Friday, April 07, 2017By Richard Alexander

Airbags are perhaps the greatest life-saving safety device ever incorporated into automobiles. Before them, the shoulder belt restraint probably held that distinction, and before that, the lap belt. The technology of airbags is really amazing.

Airbag systems do the following things in succession when activated:

  • Detect the speed of the car;
  • Send an electrical current when triggered;
  • Create an explosion;
  • Inflate the airbag; and
  • Deflate the airbag;

The system does all of these things in 1/25 of a second! When these things don’t happen as they should, well, more serious personal injury almost always results.

One of the deadly consequences of the GM ignition switch problem that caused the recall of 2.6 million cars, is that the airbags did not always deploy in crashes. The defect causes the car’s ignition switch to move from the “on” position to the “off” or “accessory” positions while in operation. Thus, the engine shuts off, along with the power steering and power brakes.

With the loss of drivability, many drivers crashed their cars, resulting in hundreds or even thousands of injuries and nearly 200 known deaths. But it was the failure of airbag deployment that contributed significantly to the seriousness of injuries and the number of deaths.

The aftermath of the recall included reviews of how GM programs its airbags. After Congressional hearings about the recall, it was reported that both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and GM had not given much thought to this issue as the problem was developing.

Deployment is mostly a function of the speed of the vehicle as detected by an accelerometer and the position of the ignition switch. Apparently, some carmakers maintain power to the system even when the engine is off, but with the switch in the accessory position, while others require the switch to be in the on position. It appears that GM’s systems do not provide power to the airbag system in the accessory position and that contributed to the lack of deployment in crashes caused by the defective switches.

That is not to say, however, that the GM airbags never deployed when the switch slipped into accessory. One universal feature of airbags is a capacitor that retains enough electrical current to trigger the explosion that inflates the bags for up to sixty seconds after the switch moves to whatever position deactivates the airbags. Whether GM crashes occurred after the capacitor’s charge depleted or the capacitors just did not function when the engine died is not really known.

The GM switch problem points up just how crucial the relationship is between different components of a car, especially as they relate to safety. If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective vehicle, contact the lawyers at the Alexander Law Group, LLP or call 888.777.1776. We believe in holding companies responsible. All calls are free and confidential.

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