Ronald Smith, a 59-year-old engineer, was driving home on November 12, 2010 when he was involved in a six-car pile-up. Smith was uninjured in the crash, but the impact was severe enough to deploy the airbags in his Vauxhall Insignia. The crash was also violent enough to break one window, causing a shard of glass to pierce the driver's side airbag, releasing the contents.
Although Smith only suffered a few minor bumps and bruises in the crash, he immediately began complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. Smith told his wife that white powder from the punctured airbag filled the car to the point where he couldn't see.
About two months after the crash on January 5, Smith was rushed to the hospital for breathing problems.
"He just couldn't breathe and he was very distressed,"¯ June Smith, Ronald's wife, told The Northern Echo. "He could barely move. It was a very cold winter, and he was really struggling."¯
Smith was admitted to the intensive care unit but died on January 31.
A thorough investigation was launched shortly thereafter, with the results finally announced earlier this week. The inquest found that the powered - which is essentially a cocktail of chemicals, include highly toxic sodium azide -- from the cut airbag was indeed responsible for Smith's death.
"I accept that the death was attributed to bronchial pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis and that it was developed after this incident in November, and the deceased's exposure to noxious substances,"¯ said South Tyneside Coroner Terence Carney. "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 says it is investigating the matter but has yet to comment. There are no known reports of death by airbag fumes on record.
Although the incident occurred in the UK, it could have ramifications on in U.S. The Vauxhall Insignia is essentially the same vehicle as the Buick Regal sold on these shores.
Moreover, airbags are very similar from automaker to automaker, so Smith's death could open the doors to a widespread investigation of airbag safety. Nothing has been put into motion yet, be we suspect some kind of safety probe could be forthcoming.