TROY — When Ethan Smith’s mother was reluctant to drive after learning her car had recalled air bags, his father asked him to come up with a solution that would get her back behind the wheel.
The resulting invention, the Shrap Shield, is now available for pre-order online.
“My mom had a (Honda) CRV with a recalled Takata air bag and she wanted to get rid of it and my dad was fighting her on it, saying, ‘We don’t want to take a loss on this car.’ So he came to me,” Smith said.
He and his father, local lawyer De Wayne Smith, put their heads together to come up with a solution that would make her feel safe until the air bag could be replaced.
Smith, the owner of SmithFly Designs in Troy, used his experience in industrial design and his contacts in the tactical gear business to create a product that would protect drivers from air bag malfunctions.
The Shrap Shield is a departure from Smith’s usual business — making gear for sportsmen and inflatable watercraft — but he said he is glad to use his design skills to make something that could help people.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are at least 42 million cars on the road with recalled air bags.
Vehicles made by 19 different automakers were subject to the recall for air bags made by major parts supplier Takata. The air bags were mostly installed in cars between 2002 and 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation.
“The list is pretty staggering when you see it,” he said.
Some of the air bag inflator cartridges are at risk of rupturing during a crash, which could send sharp metal pieces flying.
The Shrap Shield is made of laminated, puncture resistant correctional Kevlar, a material used to outfit jail and prison staff and protect them from sharp weapons. The simple design fits over the center of the steering wheel and is secured with Velcro, which lets the air bag deploy normally in the event of an accident.
If the air bag deploys, the break-away design allows it to blow off of the steering wheel and cover the face, head and neck before shrapnel hits the driver.
“That’s why we call it the Shrap Shield, because it’s a shield for shrapnel,” Smith said.
Smith tested the prototypes by intentionally deploying airbags, but he noted that there’s no way to tell if an air bag is faulty until it deploys.
“It’s like a seat belt. It’s not going to prevent every kind of calamity, but it’s still a measure of safety that we think can save some lives,” Smith said.
Smith worked with tactical equipment manufacturers in the area to select a material and create a prototype. Shrap Shields are made in the United States.
Realizing he had something widely useful on his hands, Smith worked with an attorney to start the patent process, which was finalized in July. Now Smith is exploring options for marketing the device.
“It’s just a device that will help people,” he said.
Smith’s design works for many car models and he is working on versions of the Shrap Shield that fit different steering wheel types, he said.
“It’s flexible enough to be used on a variety of car models,” he said.
It’s not a permanent or one-size-fits-all solution, Smith admitted, but he hopes the Shrap Shield can keep drivers safe and give them peace of mind while they wait for air bag replacement.
He noted that wait times for replacement can also be daunting, adding that it could take as long as 10 years for all the millions of recalled air bags to be replaced.
“The Takata people can’t make new air bags fast enough to replace them all,” Smith said.
While the manufacturer has been sending out recall notifications to car owners, Smith pointed out that it could be useful to the owners of used cars who may be uninformed or to dealers who sell used vehicles. He also added that many people put off addressing recall issues when they do receive a notice, and may not know how serious the issue is.
The faulty air bags have caused at least nine documented deaths, he said.
“There was another death in Florida in July, I think. Air bag went off, shrapnel hit her in the jugular and she bled to death. And I think it was a fairly minor accident,” Smith said.
Those most at risk are residents of hot, humid areas, Smith said. The heat and humidity can degrade the metal air bag inflator cartridge, causing it to explode on impact.
To learn more about the Shrap Shield, visit www.shrapshield.com. The device is priced at $100. To see if your vehicle might be included in the recall, visit www.nhtsa.gov or the Shrap Shield website.
“My mom, her air bag ended up getting replaced eventually, but she drove around with the prototype in her car for like nine months while she waited. And she was like 2,000 on the list at our car dealer,” he said. “In the meantime, she drove around with this and she wasn’t afraid.”
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