Aug. 7, 2002
Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook
About a year and a half ago, Public Citizen and The Center for Auto Safety asked the federal government to investigate a spate of severe eye injuries caused by passenger-side air bags in the 1994 and early 1995 Nissan Altima and require a recall. We knew at that time that the air bag’s design was defective and that it punched passengers in the eye when it inflates. We knew people were being blinded.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched a probe and then went silent. We heard nothing. The public has heard nothing. But people continue to be injured and unnecessarily put at risk, most without even knowing it. Meanwhile, Nissan has steadfastedly refused to acknowledge that its air bag is blinding the people it is supposed to protect.
In fact, Nissan has made numerous misleading statements, claiming that the eye injuries are freak events and suggesting various objects or limbs hit the passengers in the face and caused the injuries, none of which they could substantiate. They have also referenced various databases, including the National Accident Sampling System at the Department of Transportation, and New York and Michigan databases, citing the absence of eye injury cases as proof there is no problem. But these data managers all say no such conclusions can be drawn because there is not enough data to do so.
Nissan maintains that its air bag is safe because the fatality rate for the Altima is better than competitors. When asked about the eye injuries, the company hands out fact sheets about fatality rates. But this information is irrelevant, merely an artful dodge of the key issue, which is the severe injury caused by these air bags.
Nissan also combines facial and eye injuries in its responses to mask the harsh reality that the 1994 and early 1995 Altima passenger air bags cause far more eye injuries than other vehicles–in fact, almost 20 times as many. The eye injuries are caused by a defectively designed air bag that shoots out partially inflated and hits the passenger’s face while it is still inflating at about 160 mph. Nissan replaced it in mid-1995 after lawsuits were filed. While Nissan refused to admit the problem, no permanent eye injuries are known with the new system.
Nissan has also attempted to cover up this defect with gag orders imposed as a condition of settlement of its lawsuits. Nissan should accept responsibility for its harmful design of this important safety system and immediately notify owners and replace the defective air bags.
It’s time for NHTSA to finish its work. Today, we call for NHTSA to immediately order a recall of these vehicles, of which about 197,500 are still on the road, to stop these terrible injuries. But we also call on Nissan to act first – to admit the problem and recall the cars voluntarily. People should not lose their vision because a driver hits a curb or has a fender-bender. 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.
We further urge anyone who has lost their eyesight as a result of this air bag to sue Nissan, because that is the only language the company seems to understand. We recommend that people do not sit in the passenger seats of the 1994 and early 1995 Altima. And please let Public Citizen know of your injuries by calling us 202-588-1000, or visit www.citizen.org.
It is important to note that all air bags are not equal. Some manufacturers installed cheap systems that don’t protect people as they should. Unfortunately, neither manufacturers nor the government will give the public basic performance information about air bag design, so citizens can decide which vehicles to buy, including used vehicles. We have tried many times to get it but have been unsuccessful.
Efforts by Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety to prevent air bag defects and inform the public of air bag performance began in the late 1980s, when we urged NHTSA to develop a system for evaluating air bag design deficiencies and launch a public information campaign about how air bags work. NHTSA did nothing until children were injured in the mid-1990s.
In 1996, we petitioned NHTSA to require dual inflation air bags, and the next year we asked NHTSA to release the names of the makes and models of air bag-equipped vehicles it tested. After the Center and Public Citizen sued, NHTSA finally released the names.
In 1997, Public Citizen and the Center released a study showing a huge variation in the safety records of different air bags. We recommended that NHTSA provide full information to consumers on which air bags are safest, with a safety rating of key air bag designs. NHTSA never did anything.
Finally in the fall of 1997, we persuaded NHTSA to request air bag information from manufacturers but NHTSA kept much of it confidential at the request of automakers. We sued to get it, but while the federal court of appeals ruled that while none of the information was a trade secret, it said that the government could hide the information because the automakers gave it voluntarily to the government – a preposterous conclusion, given the agency’s authority to mandate it.
While that battle was going on, we, along with Parents for Safer Air Bags, petitioned NHTSA to require automakers to provide air bag specifications to new car purchasers when they buy their cars. NHTSA never did anything.
Despite the years of pushing, much critical information about air bag design and performance is still secret today.
The public deserves better. They need to know more about what kind of air bags are in the cars they buy. They also deserve to go for a ride in a car without putting themselves at risk of permanent vision loss.
Clarence Ditlow will now describe the Altima air bag design flaws and how the air bag was changed in 1995. We have two video tapes illustrating the differences in performance. We also will hear from two victims who will explain their horrible experiences and the impact their eye injuries have had on their lives. We will then be pleased to take questions.
Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org