Automaker refusing to fix Midlands woman's car despite safety ha - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

Automaker refusing to fix Midlands woman's car after airbags deploy while she is driving

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(Source: MGN Online) (Source: MGN Online)

There's not a single scratch on her SUV but a bizarre accident leaves a Midlands woman's vehicle a safety hazard.

Sensors that trigger a safety device found in her car and likely yours too have repeatedly been recalled nationwide by different manufacturers.

Despite problems the maker of her car isn't budging refusing to fix it.

Monica Branhan and her 5-year-old were running errands on Highway 378 near I-20 when it happened.

"We were just driving down the road, I was already in the lane that I was going to be in to be turning, and all that," Monica said. "All of a sudden we just heard this noise and everything went kind of when silent, I heard ringing in my ears, and I was looking around and I seen these white things hanging on both sides of my car."

The white things were her side-curtain airbags from the roof.

"When the ringing stopped all I could hear was my five year old screaming in the back seat," Monica said. "I walked all around the car, there's no scratches on it, no dents, no nothing, I didn't hit anything, you can even look on the tires I didn't hit the curb or anything."

The explosion and seatbelt burned her neck. The airbags were cut out allowing her to drive and pick up her children. Insurance approved a rental car, but called the next day and said since she'd not hit anything, this wasn't an insurance claim, despite her comprehensive coverage.

"I said ‘lady if a missile had hit my car, I wouldn't even be calling you right now," she said.

They urged Monica to contact Suzuki. She did, and an engineer was sent to look at the vehicle, but before they would touch it they wanted a costly signature.

"They need us to sign this before they could even check the diagnostics on our car and they're not promising that they would fix it, they're not promising that they wouldn't, but they needed this signed and if I did not sign it, they wouldn't do anything they actually closed the case," Monica said.

Absolving them of any liability.

"I know for a fact I did nothing that day to make my airbags deploy, this was a mechanical defect and I'm not signing this paper to let them turn around and say well it was your fault when it wasn't and for me to sign this paper it's telling them it's okay for them not to fix my car," Monica said.

Monica took her car to Complete Car Care.

"What I'm looking for is what they call the freeze frame data," said Scott Zeagler, a mechanic with Complete Car Care. "They can actually pull the information like how fast she was going, whether the brakes were applied, if she was turning left, right anything like that."

In this case it would take a specific machine or Suzuki's engineers to do that, but he can see the signals sent to deploy the airbags.

"Obviously there's a problem with the airbag system on the cars, what they're doing about it I don't know," Zeagler said.

Another mechanic sent a Technical Service Bulletin, matching the year and model of Monica's Suzuki. The errors found with Monica's car match some of the warnings in technical service bulletin, that connectors could be loose, missing, or broken.

Could erratic driving be to blame?

"No, it should not, like I say it's got to be a pretty violent, abrupt stop, roll over something like that," Zeagler said.

Other safety experts agree.

"Clearly there's been a malfunction in the vehicle, if you have an airbag deployment with a non-crash you can automatically assume there's something wrong with that car," said Sean Kane with Safety Research and Strategies.

Monica's not alone.

A check of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found six similar complaints, each time the airbags deploying without a wreck. In one instance the driver claiming Suzuki did evaluate her vehicle, and does not intend to fix the problem. The estimated cost in another was around $7,000.

So we asked the NHTSA what would a recall take?

NHTSA's website says a safety recall is done when there is a safety-related defect in the vehicle. What's a safety related defect?

"Any airbags that deploy under conditions for which they are not intended to deploy," according to NHTSA's website.

When we asked, if it mattered how many vehicles were affected or if someone had to die, the response, "The agency evaluates each complaint individually as part of its screening process. There is no fixed number or threshold for triggering a safety defect investigation."

In this case, they don't see an actionable trend, determined without investigating a single complaint. It's obvious to safety experts, there's a defect trend, being ignored at your expense.

"They've let the manufacturers slide with these things and that's been doubly problematic because the manufacturers have no incentive to take care of a problem if there's no enforcement on the federal level and they can just shift it back to the consumer or an insurance company," Kane said.

As for Suzuki, we contacted them through a certified letter at their request in California. Their response: "No comment, because Monica reported she is currently represented by legal counsel."

Monica said she's doesn't have an attorney and Suzuki isn't the only manufacturer doing this.

General Motors has acted similarly.

"I think consumers have been abused by, kind of falling between the cracks, this is a kind of defect where the federal enforcement is just not there, and the manufacturers look at it as an expensive fix that if they can get away with not fixing, they'll do it," Kane said.

Leaving Monica with a vehicle she knows is unsafe, mechanics say in this condition, the front airbags won't deploy.

"The seat belt is broken, we can't even use our seat belt on this side, it won't even move," Monica said.

And frustrated that a vehicle she once enjoyed.

"This car has been a very good car, it's good on gas, it's very quiet, it's roomy enough for my family, everything worked on it before, we had no issues with it," Monica said.

Now could put her family's lives at risk every time she gets behind the wheel.

Recalls are far more common than most think. Overall in the last three years there have been several thousand recalls, most affecting a small number of vehicles.

Toyota recalled 1.3 million cars this year with a risk of airbags deploying. That recall could cost the company as much as $5 billion.

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