How Many People Could Be Hurt By Jeep Wrangler Airbags?

Michael GrossmanOctober 19, 2016 6 minutes

News broke today that Fiat-Chrysler is recalling 220,000 2016 and 2017 Jeep Wranglers due to a wiring issue, which could cause airbags not to inflate and seat pretensioners not to engage during an accident.

At this time there have been no reported injuries or fatalities due to this product defect, but that may simply be because the public has not been on the look-out for such a defect. In similar cases, such as Chrysler's exploding gas tank problem and GMs faulty ignition switch, manufacturing defects took years to become public knowledge and in the interim hundreds of people died and even more people were injured.

This means that it is very likely that someone has already been killed by the defects in the 2016 and 2017 Jeep Wrangler*. In this article, we'll attempt to figure out just how many people we would expect to have been killed or injured as a result of airbags and seat belts not properly engaging.

*It is being reported that no 2017 Jeep Wranglers have been sold at this time.

A Word On Our Methodology

While it may strike some as reckless or speculative to try and figure out how many people may have already been injured by defective Jeep Wranglers, unfortunate similar types of defects in other vehicles give us some tools to come up with an educated estimate.

As we mentioned before, in 2013 Chrysler acknowledged an issue with a poorly designed gas tank, which would melt, catch fire, and explode if rear-ended. The affected models were 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees as well as 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties. The total number of vehicles involved was 1.5 million SUVs. From that total, 50 deaths were directly linked to the manufacturing defect, and roughly 3 times as many injuries. This means that for every 30,000 vehicles sold, 1 person died and 3 people were injured.

Equally infamous was the GM ignition switch defect that permitted keys to slide out of the ignition under certain circumstances, which resulted in the entire vehicle losing power, brake assist, and power steering. This problem encompassed 2.6 million General Motors vehicles, resulting in 124 deaths and 274 injuries. For the affected GM vehicles, a person died and more than 2 people were injured for every 20,968 vehicles sold.

From looking at these accidents we can get an expected range for both fatalities and injuries. Some may object that the circumstances that trigger fatal events differ from defect to defect. I would certainly agree with that criticism. With that being said the circumstances that contribute to a critical event are arguably much more likely to occur with the Jeep Wrangler than with the previous recalls that we've discussed.

In order to expose the gas tank defect, a Chrysler vehicle had to be hit, from behind, at a relatively high rate of speed. The GM defect didn't manifest itself except when the driver was going around a sharp curve or turning quickly, with a heavily weighted key-chain. With the Chrysler defect, it appears that the triggering event is being hit on the drivers side of the car hard enough to damage the front left headlight. This seems like a much more likely scenario to me than those of the previous manufacturing defects.

Studies show that the driver's side of a vehicle is more likely to be involved in an accident than the passenger side. This further increases the likelihood the 2016 Jeep Wrangler defect will be triggered.

No methodology will be exact, but we can get educated approximations by assuming that most of the differences will be cancelled out and that injury rates will be similar to previous manufacturing defects.

Another way to calculate the expected number of deaths is to compare the number of affected Jeep Wranglers, 220,000, to the total United States car fleet, 255.8 million. We can then look at the estimated number of lives saved statistics published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and figure out how many lives these safety devices would be expected to save as proportion of the total number.

The advantage to this calculation is that it would take away concerns that the Jeep Wrangler hasn't been on the road as long as the vehicles involved in the other recalls, since it essentially takes a snap shot of a single year.

2016 Jeep Wrangler Manufacturing Defects: How Many People Would We Expect to Be Killed or Injured?

If we assume a rate of 1 fatality for every 30,000 vehicles sold (similar to the gas tank defect), we would expect that between 7 and 8 people have or will be killed by defects in the 2016 Jeep Wrangler. Using that same metric, somewhere between 20 and 25 people may have suffered injuries.

Were we to use the GM ignition switch rates of injury and death for the current recall, then slightly more than 10 people may have been killed, with 25 or so injured.

Employing our second methodology, we would expect that given its share of the United States vehicle fleet, seat belts in Jeep Wranglers could be expected to save 13 lives every year and airbags another 2. That gives us 15 potential lives saved in a given year. However, we can't go so far as to assume that all 15 of these people actually died due to defective seat belts and airbags, since not every accident triggers the defect.

It is important to remember that this recall affects not only the airbags, but also the seat belt pretensioner, the part that makes your seat belt tighten in the event of a sudden deceleration, like in an accident. This is probably the trickiest effect to estimate, because if the seat belt doesn't tighten in an accident, its only utility is in preventing people from being ejected from the vehicle. Beyond that, it has no effect until it runs out of slack, which is usually long after a driver impacts the steering wheel, or passengers impact the dash.

In essence, to figure out how many people would be killed by non-functioning seat belt prentensioners we have to compare the number of lives that could have been saved had everyone been wearing seat belts. It is well-known that those not wearing seat belts are twice as likely to die in an accident as those who do. Furthermore, a quarter of those deaths could have been prevented with seat belt use. This means that another 3-4 people might be killed as a result of non-functioning seat-belt pretensioners, which brings the maximum number of expected deaths to 18.

What Kinds of Injuries Could We Expect From This Defect?

In the absence of properly functioning seat belts, we would expect to find injuries that are rarely seen in most accidents these days. The most prominent would be abnormal injuries to the head and chest area. One of the great benefits from airbags is that they prevent drivers from suffering devastating chest trauma injuries and passengers from experiencing severe head injuries due to collisions with the steering wheel and the dashboard, respectively.

One of the consequences of these injuries being so rare, is that crash scene investigators, the majority of whom have not seen traffic accidents before the airbag mandate, could misdiagnose the cause of injuries that they have little familiarity with. This isn't to impugn the fine work that these dedicated professionals do, but simply to point out that these accidents fall outside their training and experience.

While I have no doubt that Fiat-Chrysler is sincere when they report that there have been no injuries or fatalities, it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that this is actually the case, given how peculiar these accidents would be. In all likelihood, there are some injuries and fatalities that were wrongly attributed to drivers and passengers not properly wearing their seat belts.

For example, if I am driving one a 2016 Jeep Wrangler, properly wearing a seat belt, it would be still be possible in an accident for me to go flying and end up partially through the windshield. If you're the investigator and you didn't know about the defect, which none of us did until today, your job is to come up with the most plausible explanation for how I ended up through the windshield while wearing a seat belt. Putting yourself in the investigator's shoes, are you going to blame a failed seat belt pretensioner or are you going to figure that I had too much slack in my seat belt and wasn't wearing it right? I think most people are going to go with the latter explanation, because it's simpler and more common.

This problem makes it crucial that those who suspect the defect may have caused their injury retain access to the vehicle. While it may be the last thing on someone's mind after an accident, the wreckage of the vehicle is crucial for determining whether or not the injuries were caused by this defect.

Absent the vehicle, it may still be possible to prove that injuries were the result of this defect. As mentioned before, the injuries that can occur absent airbags and proper seat belts are not seen in people who are buckled in. It's important to remember that in a civil matter, the burden of proof is the preponderance of the evidence. When an injury lines up with what one would expect to find in an accident where airbags and seat belts failed, for the purposes of pursuing compensation, this can be compelling evidence, even without the vehicle.

We certainly hope that Fiat-Chrysler caught this problem before any injuries or deaths came of it, as they claim they have, but it seems likely too many vehicles have been on the road for too long for that to be the case. Sadly, it would not be surprising if several people died and dozens more were injured by this manufacturing defect. If so, they deserve compensation.