An Alberta truck owner says the side airbags went off in his pick-up when they shouldn’t have, slammed him into his passenger, even shattering his glasses.

In September 2013, Matthew Nolte was driving his 2011 Chevrolet Silverado four-wheel drive on a back road near his home in Sturgeon County, north of Edmonton.

“I realized I missed my turn,” Nolte said. “So I went to do a U-turn in the middle of the gravel road. All of a sudden I hear a big bang.”

Nolte says the airbags went off with enough force to knock him and his passenger together so that they banged their heads.

“We were dazed,” he said. “I got out of the truck, walked around, saw there was no damage and was just baffled after that.”

Nolte returned the truck to Edmonton Motors, the dealer from which he bought it 18 months earlier, believing there was something wrong with the airbag system.

‘Airbag system fault-free’

But after an inspection of the truck’s computer data, GM Canada told Nolte everything had worked properly.

“The technical review concluded that the airbag system was fault-free and working per its design intent,” wrote GM claims administrator Susan Braun in an email.

In an email to Go Public, GM of Canada corporate communications manager Adria Mackenzie said the vehicle’s sensor decided the truck was about to roll.

“Our engineers concluded that the vehicle’s sensors determined that a potential vehicle rollover was imminent and the airbags were deployed to help protect the occupants,” she wrote.

Nolte said he spun the rear wheels while making the turn and that his front wheel fell into a rut left by a grader.

But he said the manoeuvre was no worse than he’d put it through on the farm, or what’s often shown in TV commercials.

“I feel they’re misrepresenting their vehicles,” he said. “I’m seeing vehicles in off-road situations, going over bumps … having boulders dropped into the boxes and I don’t see airbags going off then.”

GM denied Nolte’s claim. He decided to repair the airbags for $1,900, but forego another $1,600 to repair tears to the interior lining and panelling caused when the airbags went off.

‘Consumer’s concerns are valid’

Go Public sent the computer data GM used to the Automobile Protection Association, a consumer lobby group.

“GM better keep looking,” said APA Director George Iny. “The consumer’s concerns are valid,” he said. “If I owned that truck I’d be awake at night wondering.

“The only time you should have both airbags deploying like that should be in a rollover. And it would be pretty obvious from (the vehicle’s) physical condition that it had rolled.”

Iny said GM’s technical justification that airbag module worked as designed doesn’t fit with the real world use of a 4x4.

“It collected the data it was supposed to collect, but it doesn’t replace a human brain, it does not replace logic.”

“General Motors … should buy that truck back if they don’t know why a truck that didn’t roll over deployed the airbag system as it did,” Iny said.

Pierre-Olivier Millette, an APA investigator and an engineer who formerly worked for Transport Canada, agrees the data shows the airbag module detected Nolte’s truck was rolling over.

“It may have worked as intended,” he said. “But there was no need for an airbag deployment in this case.”

Computer interpreted truck as rolling

Millette said the airbags’ computer module may have accurately measured what it was designed to measure, but it may not have been designed to measure enough.

“I doesn’t appear to have been looking at the actual roll angle of the vehicle,” he said. “In other words, whether it is on its side, on its wheels, on its roof.”

(When asked about whether the airbag system measured “roll angle,” a GM representative said, “this measure is taken in degrees/second and is referred to as roll angle or roll rate.”)

Millette said that while the tire-spinning U-turn would be unusual treatment for a passenger vehicle, 4X4 trucks are built to be driven on rough roads.

“The truck was being used as it should be used, or at least within the range of what you should expect a pick-up driver to do.”

Millette said an airbag deployment is a violent event, and an unwarranted deployment is dangerous.

“You can’t keep driving and pretend it’s business as usual because typically you’re stunned. It may lead you to lose control, absolutely,” he said.

Transport Canada said since 2000, it has documented 40 complaints about side airbags involving GM vehicles and found no trend of a safety defect, and has had no complaints about the 2011 Chevy Silverado.

However, a "Service Airbags" warning light is illuminated in Nolte's brother's truck, which is the same year and model as Nolte's.

APA’s Millette feels Nolte’s case is worth looking into further.

“It raises some questions as to the capabilities of the vehicle to handle what it’s designed for.”

Matthew Nolte agrees.

“I feel it’s a pretty big safety concern if they’re going off when they shouldn’t,” he said.