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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson says automakers with defective airbags should step up or pay fines

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is calling on major automakers to immediately replace millions of defective airbags or give drivers who have to wait on a repairs either loaners or a reimbursement for rentals. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is calling on major automakers to immediately replace millions of defective airbags or give drivers who have to wait on a repairs either loaners or a reimbursement for rentals. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Oct. 28, 2014

TAMPA — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is calling on major automakers to immediately replace millions of defective airbags or give drivers who have to wait on a repair either loaner cars or a reimbursement for rentals.

Nelson, D-Florida, said he didn't know the cost or feasibility of finding enough rental cars to handle such a massive recall. But he favored fining automakers who don't comply, perhaps millions of dollars a day.

Nelson also supported a formal investigation into the widening recall and said leaders of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will be called to testify about "miscues" and "misfires." The senator is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Last week, the NHTSA, in an unusual move, urged owners of more than 7.8 million vehicles with potentially faulty airbags to seek an immediate replacement. However, the Tampa Bay Times and other media reported last week that manufacturers are short on parts, pushing back the replacement process.

"The people are in a panic, and they want to know what to do," Nelson said during an afternoon news conference at the Sam Gibbons Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa.

Holding one of the defective airbags, he described how explosive propellants can become unstable, causing a rupture. "This becomes shrapnel. It becomes projectiles," he said. "We're dealing with deadly stuff."

In separate letters to the CEOs of Toyota North America and American Honda Motor Co., Nelson criticized the automakers for not being proactive, and failing to pass on information about the recall on their websites. He suggested that both Toyota and Honda relay up-to-date recall information on their home pages and give customers a toll-free number for assistance.

The Department of Transportation has said it will conduct a review of the NHTSA, which has been criticized for its airbag recall along with other recalls earlier this year.

The defective airbags affecting a dozen automakers worldwide are made by Japanese auto supplier Takata. Airbag ruptures have been linked to four possible deaths and more than 100 injuries.

One victim, Corey Burdick of Eustis, a 26-year-old father of two boys, was blinded in one eye after his airbag exploded in an accident five months ago, sending a 3 1/2-inch piece of shrapnel into his eye, his attorney, Rich Newsome, said.

Newsome, of the Newsome Melton law firm in Orlando, joined Nelson at the news conference with harsh words for how automakers have handled the recall.

The attorney, who has represented auto recall and tire defect cases for 20 years, said automakers were slow to acknowledge the scope of the problem and even now should show a greater sense of urgency by phoning affected customers instead of mailing them.

Auto companies have given eight reasons for the cause of the defect — from moisture in the airbag to a quality-control problem, he said. They've also given conflicting advice on a proper fix, with some automakers receiving regulatory approval to disable the airbags and send customers home until replacement parts arrive.

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Both Nelson and Newsome said disabling the bags is a misguided temporary solution, giving drivers and passengers a false sense of security and potentially leading to worse injuries in an accident. "The airbag is designed to work in tandem with the seatbelt," Newsome said.

The recall was initially limited to areas of the country with high humidity, such as Florida. However, some lawmakers are urging more widespread action. Nelson is among them, saying it's "ridiculous" to think that in this mobile society, owners of affected airbags in northern states wouldn't be traveling to Florida.

Contact Jeff Harrington at jharrington@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3434. Follow @JeffMHarrington.

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