Defective Nissan Altima Passenger-Side Airbags Blind People; 1994, Early 1995 Cars Should Be Recalle
Public Citizen | August 7, 2002
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety today called on the federal government to recall 1994 and early 1995 Nissan Altimas because their passenger-side air bags are defective and can cause blindness and permanent eye injuries. They also urged people who ride in those Nissan Altimas not to sit in the front passenger seats of the vehicles.
Records of detailed investigations involving seat-belted passengers show that the air bags have caused severe eye injuries to more than two dozen people. Federal investigators a year ago knew of 32 such cases, and Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety have learned of others since then. The air bags have damaged retinas, caused irises to detach, led to permanently dilated pupils and in one case ruptured an eyeball. The victims have been left with blurred vision, light sensitivity and profound vision loss. Many people were completely blinded for weeks before regaining partial vision. In most cases, the injuries occurred during minor, low-speed crashes in which the driver walked away unscathed.
"Passengers in these vehicles are being maimed for life because Nissan refuses to take responsibility and fix these dangerously defective air bags," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "People should not lose their vision because a driver hits a curb or has a fender-bender. We call on the government to act now. Nissan must immediately replace the passenger-side air bag before more innocent people are needlessly blinded. Nissan is on a reckless course and is risking the imposition of punitive damages for knowingly and willfully harming its customers. Losing your sight is a terrible experience – emotionally, in terms of lost opportunities and for whole families."
The 1994 and early 1995 Nissan Altima has a serious eye-injury rate for passengers 20 times greater than other models surveyed. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating since March 2001, when Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety asked the agency to look into the problem, it has taken no final action. It is estimated that about 197,500 1994 and early 1995 Altimas remain on the road of the 249,000 made.
"NHTSA and Nissan are both to blame for the dozens of consumers with permanent eye damage from 1994-early 1995 Nissan Altima passenger air bags," said Clarence Ditlow executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Nissan made a bad air bag which NHTSA has helped them conceal from the public by granting repeated requests for confidentiality from Nissan. All too many people have been condemned to lives of darkness because NHTSA and Nissan kept them in the dark about the hazards of passenger air bags in their cars."
Unlike most air bags, the passenger-side air bags in the 1994 and early 1995 Nissan Altimas are still in the process of inflating when they come in contact with the passenger. Rather than protect against injury, they hit the passenger as they are inflating, literally punching people in the eyes. Nissan altered the design of the air bag for subsequent Altimas, beginning with the mid-1995 models. The result? There are no known cases of permanent eye injury since the design change.
Norma Brainerd, a Portland, Ore., mother of two, was completely blinded in her left eye and has problems with vision in her right eye as a result of a 1995 crash. Brainerd was a passenger in her 1994 Nissan Altima, driven by a friend. As they traveled on a coastal highway in Oregon, they hit a curb when they pulled off to admire the view. Both the driver and passenger-side air bags deployed. The driver was uninjured; Brainerd suffered a broken nose, a concussion and complete blindness for six weeks.
"In the years since my accident, numerous other people have been injured by this same air bag," said Brainerd, who spoke at a press conference held today in Washington. "Nissan remains aware of the defective product but has done nothing to recall and replace it. How many defective air bags will unexpectedly take the precious vision of other innocent victims before Nissan recalls this air bag?"
Also speaking was Newport News, Va.,-resident Kevin Nero, whose right eye was severely injured in a 1999 crash in Hampton, Va. Nero was a passenger in a friend’s 1995 Nissan Altima when they rear-ended a car in front that had abruptly slammed on the brakes. Both air bags deployed. Nero was knocked unconscious and his right eye was severely damaged. He had eye surgery, but it took five to six months for his face and eye to heal. Nero now has glaucoma and permanent scars in his right eye.
"This air bag system is a real problem," Nero said. "I hate to see these injuries happen to other people if they can be stopped now. I am a 23-year-old male with my whole life ahead of me. And as a result of this air bag defect, I will live it with the painful result of this accident, which has damaged my eye forever."
The two safety groups chided auto manufacturers and the federal government for continuously hiding from the public key information about air bags. While air bags have been credited for saving 9,300 lives, some air bags are better designed than others. Some manufacturers install cheaper systems that can injure drivers and passengers, while other air bags are much safer.
The groups have sought detailed air bag data for years but manufacturers have refused to release it. The information includes such things as how air bags are mounted, the direction of deployment, the inflation speed, the peak pressure, how they are folded and whether they are tethered. In 1997 and 1998, while developing an air bag rule, NHTSA requested and received the information from auto manufacturers but kept much of it confidential at the urging of the automakers. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen sued under the Freedom of Information Act, but the District Court of Appeals, which found the information did not constitute confidential trade secrets, nevertheless ruled that the government could hide the information because it was gathered voluntarily from the automakers.
"It’s ridiculous that the public isn’t given vital information to assess which air bags can blind them and which ones won’t," Claybrook said. "We once again call on the government and auto manufacturers – who routinely test and evaluate each other’s vehicles – to release air bag performance information for all vehicles so the public can be better protected. The people who are most at risk need this information but can’t get it."