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'Scared the heck out of me': Drivers stunned, injured after airbags deploy without warning

There was no crash, no rollover, and nothing was hit. So why did the airbags deploy without warning on two separate occasions in a Saskatchewan couple's van? Was it bad luck, or part of a problem playing out in different makes of vehicles across the country?

Honda says the airbags 'deployed as designed'

Joanne and Rick Yuke say their 2006 Honda Odyssey minivan is no longer safe to drive after their side airbags deployed in 2015 and again in October. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

There was no crash, no rollover, nothing was hit, yet the side airbags went off — twice — while they were driving, leaving a Saskatchewan couple shaken and injured.

The most recent incident happened on Thanksgiving Day. Joanne Yuke was driving their 2006 Honda Odyssey EX with her husband Rick and visiting sister-in-law as passengers, showing their guest the Saskatchewan countryside. 

Joanne Yuke, of Moose Jaw, Sask., says she was driving down a straight and level gravel road, under the speed limit, when "all of a sudden" the airbags along both sides of the van went off.

Joanne Yuke was driving with her husband and sister-in-law as passengers, when the side airbags went off leaving all three with minor injuries. (Rick Yuke)

"There was a very loud bang," Rick Yuke tells Go Public. "They just went off. It scared the heck out of me."

The Yukes say both incidents happened on straight, level gravel roads around Moose Jaw, Sask. (Rick Yuke)

"We sat there for some time just kind of taking into account what had happened. Rick was sitting in the passenger seat — his shoulder was very sore, my head was sore, my ear was ringing terrible," Joanne recalls.

Rick Yuke's sister sustained a bruise to her abdomen in the October airbag deployment incident. (Rick Yuke)

Go Public found drivers are on the hook for thousands in repairs, and left with damaged vehicles and injuries after their side panel airbags deploy while they're driving. Insurance companies won't pay for the damage since there was no collision and automakers won't either, blaming drivers or road conditions. 

Complaints to Transport Canada show random airbag deployments are happening in a number of makes and models of vehicles.

Several recalls have been issued, but the Yukes's van wasn't among them. Transport Canada says it has received other complaints about the same series (2005-2008) Honda Odyssey.

Honda says it replaced the airbags on the van owned by the Yukes after the first incident in August 2015, as a "goodwill gesture."

When the bags deployed a second time last month, the carmaker refused to help, blaming the driver, modifications to the vehicle and the gravel road.

The Yukes say the only modifications they made to the van included adding a trailer hitch, a remote starter and interior warmer.

Experts say those changes shouldn't impact the airbags.

The Yukes run a home for adults with developmental disabilities. The van is the only vehicle they have that can hold the group and is also economical to run.

The Yukes rely on their Honda Odyssey to transport their developmentally disabled live-in clients to work and medical appointments. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

It sits parked at the couple's Saskatchewan farm, undriveable. The airbags along both sides are still hanging down.

The Yuke's car insurer would not pay for a repair, saying the 'inadvertent airbag deployment event cannot be considered a collision.' (Rick Yuke)

After the second airbag problem, the Yukes tried to negotiate with Honda Canada, asking if they could trade in the van and pay a few thousand dollars more for another used vehicle they felt safer driving. They couldn't come to an agreement.

"We need a vehicle that can hold our family, keep them safe, I would never ever have our family be in that vehicle again. Never," Joanne Yuke said.

Honda tells Go Public it "has been unable to reach a satisfactory resolution with the customer relating to the second deployment."

Report finds 'malfunction'

Go Public obtained a diagnostics report done by Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) after the first airbags deployed in 2015.

The insurer told the Yukes it would not pay for repairs because there was no collision.

That report found random airbag deployments are not uncommon, and can be caused by "an internal malfunction" of the van's safety system known as the Supplemental Restraint System.

The SRS module controls the airbag deployment. 

At Go Public's request, accident reconstruction expert Peter Keith looked at the SGI report and says he agrees the airbags went off because of a defect in the van's safety system.

Accident reconstruction engineer Peter Keith says the problem is with the safety system's design.

He says bumpy roads can cause vibrations that fool airbag control modules into thinking there has been a rollover.

"The software misinterpreted the information coming into the vehicle, deployed the airbags when it shouldn't have … This is not unique. I've seen this problem before myself," Keith said.

He says automakers will often blame gravel roads, the driver's behavior or modifications to the vehicles, but the problem is with the way the safety system is designed.

"Clearly they are not meant to deploy like that. They are only meant to deploy if you're having a front collision, a side collision, a rollover, that was not the circumstances which happened with them driving straight down a gravel road."

Another SGI report noted airbag sensors can also be "sensitive".  A risk, it says, that's accepted by the automobile industry "compared to not being sensitive enough". 

Honda responds

Honda Canada tells Go Public its investigation found "the side curtain airbag system deployed as designed."

The company says airbag systems are "sensitive to driving conditions that emulate an impending vehicle rollover and/or side impact. The likelihood of generating these driving conditions is amplified when driving on dirt or loose gravel roads."

Honda fixed the airbag system after the first time the side airbags went off in 2015, but when it happened again in October 2017, they did not fix it, blaming the issue on 'the customer's distinctive driving habits on their local road conditions.' (Google)

The company says the error codes indicating a problem with the safety system in the 2015 SGI report were caused by a battery issue and "unrelated to the deployment event."

Honda also says the second deployment was not related to any vehicle or system malfunction, but due to "the customer's distinctive driving habits on their local road conditions."

The Yukes and CBC News requested a copy of Honda's diagnostic report, but the company would not provide it.

Side airbags 'blew for no reason'

Drivers of GMs, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Fiat Chrysler and other carmakers have filed similar complaints. Some companies have issued recalls.

Cynthia Germain took Volkswagen to court in 2007 when her side airbags deployed without warning — and won.

"We took it on because our side airbags blew for no reason," she said. Her husband was driving with a friend down a gravel road near Calgary when it happened.

Calgarian Cynthia Germain sued Volkswagen and won. The judge ordered the automaker to pay for the repair of her Jetta after the airbags inadvertently deployed while the car was being driven on a gravel road. (Colin Hall/CBC)

She says the Volkswagen dealership claimed the airbags deployed when her husband hit a rock and that's why the company wasn't responsible for repairs.

A judge disagreed. Germain says she took the case to court as a matter of "principle."

"If it was a collision. then that would have been our fault. And I felt that this was something that wasn't our fault and should never have happened," she said.

"I wanted to make sure that I can get to where a judge says, this is wrong. So we continued on and I sued for breach of contract and negligence."

In his ruling, Alberta Judge Brian Scott said: "Airbags are only meant to be deployed in serious motor vehicle collisions, either with other vehicles, or with large fixed objects such as trees.

"It is the responsibility of the vehicle manufacturer to equip its vehicles with airbag systems that only deploy under
accident conditions ... in my view, the premature deployment of airbags is a manufacturer's defect."

The Yukes don't want Honda to replace the airbags again — they want to trade the van in for another vehicle they'll feel safer in.

"It's just wrong that we had a vehicle that was worth $8,000 and now it's worth zero and for us to finance another vehicle, we just can't do that," Joanne Yuke told Go Public.

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About the Author

Rosa Marchitelli

@cbcRosa

Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.

With files by Jenn Blair

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