Consumer group asks for recall of air bags in 1994-95 Nissan Altimas

Wednesday, August 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Consumer group Public Citizen said Wednesday that Nissan Altimas made in 1994 and early 1995 should be recalled because their air bags have a unique defect that causes 20 times more eye injuries than other bags.

Nissan North America Inc. says Public Citizen is wrong about the devices.

At least 29 people have sued Nissan because their eyes were damaged after the passenger-side air bag inflated in a crash.

In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration upgraded its investigation into the older model Altimas. Seventy-five people have said they were hurt by an Altima air bag, which can hit a passenger's face before it has completely unrolled.

The safety agency's spokesman, Rae Tyson, would say only that its investigation is ongoing.

Public Citizen held a news conference Wednesday with Norma Brainerd of Portland, Ore., who described how she was blinded by a 1994 Altima air bag when her car hit a curb at a scenic viewpoint. She eventually regained part of her vision in one eye and settled a lawsuit with Nissan for an undisclosed amount.

``I'm asking the government, Nissan, NHTSA, somebody to take this bag off the road,'' Brainerd said tearfully after recalling how a home health worker put Velcro dots on her crockpot so she could cook for her two small children.

Nissan officials said people are suing other auto manufacturers for eye injuries caused by air bags in a variety of car makes and models.

``The best estimate is that air bags have reduced the frequency of eye injuries,'' said Nissan lawyer Mal Wheeler.

But according to information the company gave to NHTSA, Nissan received complaints about 30.17 face or eye injuries for every 100,000 1994 and 1995 Altimas sold. All other vehicle manufacturers reported 1.48 face or eye injuries per 100,000 cars.

Wheeler said a more accurate gauge of the eye injury rate comes from data collected by the New York State Department of Transportation that shows many vehicles caused more eye injuries than the 1994 and 1995 Nissan Altima.

Public Citizen's president, Joan Claybrook, said the New York State data isn't statistically reliable.

She also noted that there haven't been any permanent eye injuries reported from Altimas since Nissan replaced the defective air bag in March 1995, though there are now four times as many Altimas on the road.

About 248,000 Altimas from 1994 and 1995 are being driven in the United States, and a handful in Canada and Taiwan, according to Nissan.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said Nissan was fighting a recall because it would cost $200 million to replace the air bags. That would be one of the most expensive recalls in history, he said.

Nissan said it hadn't estimated the costs of a recall.