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Anatomy of A Hoax

Understand the risks inherent with unlocking doors of vehicles equipped with side-impact airbags.

SUBJECT: Airbag Door-Unlocking Hoax
TOPIC: Understanding Why law enforcement bulletin of door-unlocking injury is false
OBJECTIVE: Understand the risks inherent with unlokcing doors of vehicles equipped with side-impact airbags

An "Officer's Safety Caution" warning bulletin being circulated among law enforcement agencies nationwide is getting the attention of fire and EMS responders as well. As written, however, the warning appears to be nothing more than a hoax.

Here's a summary of the original law enforcement memo broadcast nationwide in the summer of 1997:


The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) out of Chicago has just informed us of a potential safety issue dealing with side impact airbags.

Recently, a Hillsboro County (OH) sheriff's deputy was severely injured while attempting to unlock a Honda Accura with a Slim Jim-type tool. This vehicle was equipped with a side impact airbag that detonated while attempting this unlock. The airbag forced the Slim Jim-type tool up through the deputy's throat causing serious injury.

And now, the truth behind this ficticious story:

Slim Jim® is a registered trademark used generically here to refer to the family of metal door unlocking tools. These devices are used by a trained and knowledgeable person standing outside a locked car door. It inserted down into the car door along the window glass. According to the tool manufacturer, the device can be manually maneuvered into and on the door linkages to unlock the door.

The reason fire and EMS personnel are paying attention to this police officer memo it because, at first glance, it is conceivable that a metal tool inserted inside a car door could short circuit some electrical system and activate a side airbag. It is easy to imagine that if a person were standing at a door with the unlocking tool in their hand, it could shoot upward towards their head and throat as an airbag deployed.

What troubles this author is that the warning bulletin is filled with so much inaccurate information that it is hard to believe the event it describes ever really took place or could even happen in the first place.

Consider this.

  • There is no such place as Hillsboro County, Ohio. There is a city of Hillsboro, Ohio with its' own police department. Contact with that agency revealed that they knew nothing of any such airbag incident and even exclaimed, "if something like that had happened anywhere around here, we would have heard about it".

  • Hillsboro, Ohio is located in Highland County. The Highland County (OH) Sheriff's Department also had never heard of any such event. I reached my first dead end!

    As a result of conversation with the National Insurance Crime Bureau's Rosemont (IL) office, they requested me to contact their eastern US field office. Staff members there reported that in fact they had received a phone call from a Florida police agency mentioning an airbag injury event that occurred to a police officer in Ohio. NICB never checked into any details of the story. The one casual phone call to NICB that prompted their posting of their "Agent Safety Alert" came from a Hillsboro County (FL) sheriff's detective. Now it seemed, at least I knew where the "Hillsboro" part of the story came from. I continued to work to get to the bottom of this story.

Contact with Charles Downey of the Hillsboro County (FL) Sheriff's Department revealed that not only had he never heard of the story but he couldn't locate any of his deputies or detectives that had ever heard of it either. Back to square one!

Next, as I really read into the details of the bulletin, something else caught my eye. There is no such thing as a Honda Accura automobile. There is the Honda Accord, Civic or Prelude and there is the Accura Integra, NSX, TL, CL and RL sedan vehicles, but not a Honda Accura (Accura is a division of American Honda Motor Company). Besides that, neither Honda or Accura have any vehicles, including their 1998 models, equipped with side impact airbags. More dead ends!

Anyone knowing more about this alleged incident is encouraged to contact this author. In the meantime, if any fire or EMS responders are responding to lockout calls and using slim jim-type door unlocking tools, you must be aware of not only the airbag injury potential but the potential for you and your department to wind up in court.

Firefighters unlocking car doors for citizens, thinking they are being the good guys can quickly wind up the losers in small claims court. Progressive fire and EMS departments have stopped this practice due to the high liability risk that is incurred. According to NICB, one vehicle is stolen in the US every 20 seconds.

Theft-deterrent innovations built into the car door by the manufacturer make the success of unlocking the door doubtful in the first place. Our probing around inside the car door can also disconnect or disable the side impact airbag system. later, if that vehicle were struck in a side collision and the side impact bags did not deploy, it may be a liability issue that will come back to the engine company "messing around" inside the car door.

If you receive a request for a lock out of a vehicle and you find a life-threatening situation, use your universal tempered glass door unlocking tool, the spring loaded center punch. If there is only inconvenience to the citizen due to being locked out of their car, explain the circumstances and they call the car dealership or a local locksmith.

The use of a Slim Jim-type door-unlocking tool has suddenly become too much of a risk and a liability for this fire department practice to continue. We need to rethink our door-unlocking protocols. What will your department's door-unlocking policy be now that you know the truth behind the Slim Jim hoax?