What recourse do I have after an airbag spontaneously explodes?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

Last Thursday, the passenger-side air bag on our 1996 Nissan Quest exploded ("deployed" doesn't exactly capture it) as my wife turned the ignition in the driveway. Our 14-year-old daughter was in the front passenger seat and had just pulled down the visor (with mirror) to put on makeup. Fortunately, she was not injured, although her ears rang for hours. Unfortunately, this did nothing to discourage her use of makeup. Seriously, though, the explosion broke the windshield and left the visor hanging by a thread. If my 12-year-old son had been sitting in that seat, closer to the dash, he could have been injured. And now it's like, when is the other shoe going to drop? When is the other air bag going to explode? My wife, who is 5 feet tall and has to sit close to the steering wheel, is afraid to drive the thing. It's at the dealership now, awaiting inspection by a Nissan mechanic. Is this an unusual occurrence? -- Clem

TOM: Maybe it's a remnant from one of those "instant win" contests that Nissan was running back in mid-1990s. Was there a note inside the exploded air bag that said "You've just won a free six-pack of Pepsi"?

RAY: Fortunately, this is a fairly unusual occurrence, Clem. But it's not unheard of. We ran a Car Talk Car Report on your car (you can do this yourself by going to the Car Talk section of www.cars.com) and found that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has logged several complaints about surprise air-bag deployments on '96 Quests. And at least a couple of them involved vehicles that were stopped or stopping.

TOM: So the first thing you should do is report this incident to NHTSA. It has a toll-free safety hotline: (800) 424-9393. You can also do it online from our Web site. If NHTSA gets enough complaints about an incident, it can open an investigation that could lead to a national recall. And who knows -- your report could tip the balance.

RAY: The next thing you should do is speak to the zone representative at Nissan (the dealer can give you his name and number) and tell him you're afraid to drive the vehicle. Personally, I think it's extremely dangerous, and I don't blame your wife for not wanting to drive it. Let him know -- nicely -- that you won't accept the vehicle back unless he can convincingly explain to you exactly how the air bag was set off, what parts were fixed or replaced and why it will never, ever happen again.

TOM: If he so much as mumbles any of the following phrases: "probably," "it seems like," "well, we think what happened," "more than likely" ...

RAY: ... In other words, any of the phrases WE use every week in our answers, then refuse to take the vehicle back. Without a clear, convincing explanation of the cause and the repair, I wouldn't drive this Quest.

TOM: Me, either. If they're good people at this dealership, they'll be sympathetic and will give you a very good deal on a trade-in. I'm sure they wouldn't want any of their families bopped in the face by a surprise air bag, either. And in fact, if I were Nissan, I'd want to buy this Quest from you just to study it and learn why it happened. So maybe Nissan will chip in, too.

RAY: And if not, I still wouldn't hesitate to dump this thing. Aside from the constant fear and anxiety of waiting for another deployment, if it does ever go off again, the lipstick-removal bills are going to kill you. Good luck, Clem. And let us know how it turns out.

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