Nissan to replace older Altima air bags, government ends investigation

Monday, April 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nissan Motor Co. will offer to replace air bags in some 198,000 older model Altimas because of complaints that they deploy too forcefully and have injured passengers' eyes.

As a result, federal safety regulators on Thursday closed their investigation of the 1994 and early 1995 Altima air bags without issuing a conclusion about whether they are defective.

Nissan's agreement to offer owners free installation of less-powerful air bags ``sufficiently addresses the safety concerns,'' the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration said in paperwork closing the two-year-old case.

The Altima investigation found 79 complaints of facial or eye injuries from passenger-side air bags. There were ``far more claims'' of moderate or serious eye injury than in similar cars, the agency said.

Some consumer advocates were disappointed the government did not declare a recall, which might grab more Altima owners' attention and carry penalties if cars are not fixed quickly enough.

``Since the investigation was pending there have been at least two cases of complete blindness that could have been avoided if they had done a recall when they first began to investigate,'' said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Now, ``the number of vehicles that get fixed is going to be lower than in a recall, because it has a lower status,'' Ditlow said.

The auto safety agency said it would monitor Nissan's replacement campaign and take further action if necessary.

``The important thing here is not the definition of the campaign's name but the fact that consumers who own these vehicles will have their air bags replaced free of charge,'' agency spokesman Rae Tyson said.

Consumer advocates say the Altima models in question cause eye injuries at a rate 20 times higher than other cars on the road now. Nissan disputes that figure, saying the number of complaints reported grew disproportionally because of lawsuits targeting the Altima.

Nissan says the air bags are safe and similar to those on other cars. The company described the replacement campaign as a response to bad publicity that might worry its customers and future buyers.

``It's being offered to owners to maintain customer satisfaction and assure their confidence,'' said Scott Vazin, a spokesman for Nissan North America.

The government's investigation covered passenger-side air bags in 1994 Altimas and 1995 models built before March 2, 1995, when the company changed the design of the bags. The autos were manufactured at Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tenn.

In all, the government found 92 people reporting injuries, mostly to the face or eyes. Fifteen of them suffered permanent impairment or blindness in at least one eye.

Almost 250,000 of the cars were sold. Vazin estimated that 198,000 remain on the road, all but about 10,000 in the United States.

Vazin said owner notification letters will be mailed starting next week and will continue over the next several months. Altima owners also can call 1-800-NISSAN-1 or talk to local dealers for information.

The automaker will not release figures about the cost of the recall. Ditlow estimated the cost at more than $100 million.