What Happens When Airbags Maim

What Happens When Airbags Maim

Airbags have been one of the most important safety developments for motor vehicles, saving thousands of lives and preventing catastrophic injuries. But at times airbags can maim and kill.

Just ask Bethany Benson or her family and friends. The Toronto Star published Bethany’s story in the March 20, 2015 issue. The full article can be read by clicking here.

Bethany was just 21 years old when a car collision damaged her brain and left her crippled and broken. She was the front seat passenger in her then-boyfriend’s 2002 Pontiac Sunfire. She was asleep with her feet stretched out up on the dash when her boyfriend crashed into the back of a stopped tractor-trailer. The passenger side airbag did what it’s designed to do and inflated, to cushion the impending impact with the dashboard and windshield. The problem: her legs were in the way when they were supposed to be tucked down in the foot well in front of her.

The airbag inflated at more than 300 kilometers an hour, ramming her feet upwards and through the thick glass of the windshield and slamming her knees backwards into her face. Her left eye socket and left cheekbone were fractured, her nose was broken and her brain began bleeding. She suffered eight broken bones in her left foot and three broken bones in her right foot. Five years later, she continues to wear a cast on her left foot because her bones did not heal properly.

She never saw it coming. As she explains in the article…

“I always used to put my feet up” in a car, she says. “It’s easier on the back if you have your feet up. I never even thought that it could be so dangerous.”

There are no statistics about how many people are injured this way, but Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs for the Canada Safety Council, says he hears about several cases each year. They usually happen in the summer when people are driving great distances. He explains…

“Often they’re travelling on vacation, or to visit family, or to head to the cottage. Passengers will want to stretch their legs and put them up there (on the dash), not realizing the force at which the airbags will deploy in a collision.”

Of all her injuries, the bleeding in her brain was perhaps the most crippling. When Bethany came into the hospital, drugged on morphine and strapped to the gurney for restraint, she had lost much of her ability to communicate. She was a history and French student at Trent University, planning to become a high school French teacher. The accident took away her knowledge of French completely and she was left barely able to speak English.

She was also a keen athlete, about to compete in her first amateur boxing bout. All that’s behind her. She’s become anxious and now, in her mother’s opinion, at age 26, has the emotional maturity of a 14-year-old. These days, her family is preoccupied with fighting lawyers for insurance coverage to pay for Bethany’s continued recuperation.

Her mother, Mary La Chapelle, was looking forward to early retirement at 55 from her job as a housing co-ordinator with Durham Region, but she’s been forced to put that back at least a decade. She needs her benefits package to pay for Bethany’s pain and anxiety medication, as well as specialized therapy equipment, expensive orthotics for shoes and the numerous out-of-town trips to medical consultants.

Bethany does not expect to recover completely, but she does want to use her experience to tell others about the dangers of putting feet up on the dash.

“Now I see people doing it all the time and it just bothers me because they don’t know how dangerous it is,” she says. “I just want to scream at them, to tell them not to do it, because they might end up like me.”

A car’s airbag is designed to save your life, but it can be very dangerous in a collision if occupants are not seated properly.

Mr. Marchand warns how airbags can be dangerous.

“People have to realize that unlike the steering wheel airbag, which is relatively small, the airbag on the passenger side is huge,” he says. “Typically, the person is much farther away so the airbag has to be bigger to reach them.”

If the passenger’s feet are up on the dash, or perhaps resting one foot on the dash and the other out the window, the results of a collision can be catastrophic.

Mr. Marchand explains that having feet on the dash is not the only risk from airbags in a collision. Luggage carried on the lap, or a dog or cat, can be lethal as they’re rammed back into the passenger’s chest by the airbag.

“You’ll see people go to the hardware store as a couple, and then instead of putting the new coffeemaker in the trunk, the passenger puts the box on their lap and thinks, well, we’re not going far — just heading home. That will cause very serious pressure on the chest if there’s a collision.”

As the weather warms and days get longer more and more people will be heading out for long road trips, be safe. Take Bethany’s story to heart. Don’t ride with your feet up on the dash. Avoid having anything in your lap while driving. These small inconveniences could prevent a lifetime of hardship.

Kristian Bonn, Personal Injury Lawyer

Bonn Law Office, Trenton/Belleville, ON