Airbag may have killed crash driver

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The Independent Online
A WOMAN who died after her car was involved in a head-on collision may have been the first motorist to be killed by the inflation of a driver's airbag, an inquest was told yesterday.

Jennifer Reichardt, 47, a legal executive, died after the collision near St Helens, Merseyside, last year. Although the airbag of her Rover 400 stopped her hitting the windscreen or the steering wheel, she still suffered a fractured skull. It is thought to be the first time the role of an airbag has been questioned in connection with a death in the UK, although there have been many such cases in the United States.

Dr Kenneth Mason, of Whiston Hospital accident and emergency department, where Ms Reichardt was taken after the crash, told the inquest that it was the first case of its kind he had seen in 17 years of A&E medicine. "This is the first case where I suspected it might be an air-bag," he said. "I considered the possibility that the injury was caused by being thrown back by the airbag against the head restraint." He told the jury that Ms Reichardt's only life-threatening injury was caused by the blow to her head.

Ernest Gradwell, a consultant pathologist at the hospital, who did a post-mortem examination, said: "Miss Reichardt sustained a fracture to the base of her skull which is the first I have ever seen. This type of fracture is very uncommon ... there appeared to be no contact with the car windscreen or steering wheel."

He said she had come into contact with a force similar to someone jumping off the top of a building.

Paul Leyland, the driver of an Opel Ascona, which was in collision with Ms Reichardt's car, said that just before the crash, as he slowed into an approaching bend, his car juddered and continued in a straight line. "The car pulled to the left and I could not control it as I went straight on. I collided with another car. I tried to get out of the way but I couldn't," he said.

Mr Leyland, 22, who had just had suspension work carried out on the vehicle, said he walked away from his 13-year-old car, which had no airbag, with just a cut lip.

The inquest at St Helens town Hall was told that he was fined pounds 250 last year for driving without due care and attention.

PC Harry Jones, an off-duty officer who arrived at the scene of the accident, said the front of the car was crushed down to the front of Ms Reichardt's legs, but he did not believe that had caused her fatal injuries. He added that she had been wearing a seatbelt and was neither too close nor too far from the steering wheel.

PC Harry Walsh, senior vehicle examiner with Merseyside Police, thought the injuries were caused by the airbag rather than by the car's bulkhead. He said: "It would appear had the airbag not been employed the outcome of the accident could have been totally different."

PC Walsh said he found nothing wrong with either vehicle that would have caused the accident.

In a crash, an airbag opens at up to 200mph, with the force of a heavyweight boxer's punch. The sound of it inflating is twice as loud as a rifle shot.

Only two airbag injuries have been reported in Britain. In both case the drivers were burnt, probably by friction.

Experts in the United States believe that shorter people sitting closer to the dashboard are more at risk, and in Canada the bags are being designed to inflate more slowly.

The inquest continues today.