Airbag Recall and Seat Belt Safety: Are You Driving in Danger?

Airbag Recall and Seat Belt Safety: Are You Driving in Danger?

by Hal M. Bundrick

Highway deaths over the past five years are at historic lows, rivaling the safety statistics of the 1950s, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). With an auto industry focus on safety, stricter enforcement of driving-under-the-influence laws and broader consumer awareness, traffic fatality trends are generally favorable. But news in the past few days has raised some new concerns.

In a major development this week, the NHTSA is urging owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, and General Motors vehicles to act immediately to replace defective airbags. The recall notice involves airbags manufactured by Takata and is of the greatest urgency for drivers in humid climates, where the equipment faces even more critical degradation. The NHTSA says the bag malfunction can result in glass and metal shrapnel injuries to frontseat passengers. The issue is so serious, Toyota is urging owners of the affected vehicles to put passengers in the rear seat until the air bags are replaced.

In an unrelated matter, but an issue also involving passenger restraints, a California Superior Court jury found Toyota liable for the debilitating injuries suffered by a young woman involved in a crash more than four and a half years ago. The four-week trial ended Friday with a jury awarding the young woman $12 million in damages after just four hours of deliberations.

The passenger was riding in the rear center seat of a 1996 Toyota 4Runner and restrained with a lap-only belt, the only protection offered in that seat position for the older-model vehicle.

“The tragedy underlying this case is that [the passenger] will be severely disabled for life, because Toyota decided to save a few dollars by not installing a lap-shoulder belt in the rear center seat of the 1996 4Runner,” the plaintiff’s attorney, Bob Rosenthal, said. “The tragedy underlying all these cases is that even though Toyota and other manufacturers have known for decades that lap-only belts are needlessly dangerous, they have failed to recall or warn about those existing older vehicles still on the road, equipped with lap belts. These older vehicles are ticking time-bombs being driven by young drivers and young families, the very people most likely to put someone in that rear center seat.”

Toyota attorney Vincent Galvin said that Toyota’s decision not to put a lap-shoulder belt in the rear center seat was justified by the fact that “even if the lap-shoulder belt provides an added measure of protection in certain accidents, it’s not going to provide any protection for somebody who is not going to use it properly.”

Since 2005, vehicles have been required by federal safety standards to be equipped with rear center seat lap-shoulder belts, though millions of vehicles manufactured prior to the mandate — with lap-only belts in the rear center seat — remain registered and on the road.