A man involved in a minor car crash died months later after breathing in contents of an airbag. Grandfather Mr Ronald Smith who was fit and active developed breathing problems and was admitted to hospital where he was placed on a ventilator. At the time of the accident the airbag had been torn open by a shard of glass as it inflated and Mr Smith inhaled gases contained in the airbag along with a large amount of white powder.
A spokesman from the AA motoring organisation said 'in the event of a crash, sensors in a car, behind the bumper for example, measure the rate of deceleration. If the impact is severe enough, an explosive device triggers the inflation of the airbag. In some systems a sodium azide tablet is fitted inside, and this is ignited electronically. When it ignites it produces nitrogen, which inflates the airbag. Nitrogen already makes up 78 per cent of the air we breathe so it’s not hazardous. As soon as the bag has fully inflated it starts to deflate once it’s taken the force. A lot of powder is also released. This is mainly talcum powder, which manufacturers use as a lubricant to help the airbag slide into the correct position during assembly.’
South Tyneside coroner Terence Carney recorded a verdict of misadventure on Mr Smith, from Marsden, South Shields. He said ‘this man died as a result of this incident (the car crash) and more pointedly because of the explosion of his airbag and exposure to noxious substances.’
It is believed to be the first time a driver has died after inhaling the contents of an airbag, and Mr Smith’s widow spoke her shock and devastation that something designed to save life had actually taken it. ‘He told me about the white powder straight away,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘He said there was so much of it he couldn’t see. ‘I just thought that the white powder had got into his lungs. I thought his body would get rid of it by itself, I didn’t think it would be permanent. Not long after that I noticed that he wasn’t right, he would become breathless walking up the drive. Ronnie has never smoked so that was very worrying. He started to cough a lot as well. It wasn’t normal because he wasn’t like that, he never got colds. He had always been so healthy and was extremely fit. I knew from the beginning that it was the air bag but other people would look at me as if to say, “Don’t be silly”.’