Airbag saves man, then kills him

An engineer is saved in a crash by his airbag. However, during the crash, the airbag bursts and the man inhales some of its noxious chemical fumes. He dies two months later, the fumes being cited as a cause of death.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read
Vauxhall Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Perhaps you've never thought about what is inside your airbag, other than air.

This story might make you wonder.

In 2010, Ronald Smith of Scotland, was involved in a six-car accident, during which his airbag deployed successfully. He wasn't hurt, even though he had been hit from behind and had struck the car in front.

The crash was of sufficient force that his car window broke and pierced the airbag of his Vauxhall Insignia. (Vauxhall Motors is owned by General Motors.) After the crash, Smith, an engineer, reported seeing white powder emerge from the airbag. His face was also red from some sort of irritation, presumably related to the white powder.

As Scotland Daily Record reports, he began to feel ill. He suffered from a cough and shortness of breath.

A few weeks after the crash, he was admitted to hospital, where he died. He had not been a smoker. He had not experienced any other obvious health problems.

His widow, June, told the Daily Record: "I knew from the very beginning that it was the airbag. I just knew but other people would look at me as if to say, 'don't be silly'."

An inquest was finally held this week. During it, a forensic pathologist talked about how Smith's lungs were infected and that he died of bronchial pneumonia.

The coroner, Terence Carney, declared in his verdict: "This man died as a result of this incident and more pointedly because of the explosion of his airbag, and this death should be recorded as misadventure."

Vauxhall, part of GM, says it is investigating and doesn't wish to comment further.

Washington University's chemistry department says that inside airbags is a mixture of NaN3, KNO3, and SiO2. The end result of the chemical reaction is supposed to be silicate glass, which is safe.

What might have happened here is clearly still open to some conjecture, even if the coroner seemed very clear.

I can find no similar incidents having occurred anywhere. However, given that airbags have already been suspected of causing physical harm to young children, shouldn't people be clearly warned about the dangers of a severed airbag?

Still, even if Smith had known the airbag contained dangerous chemicals, what could he have done to prevent himself breathing in the noxious fumes?