NHTSA Launches Investigation of 2012 Nissan Versa Airbag Sensors

Michael GrossmanOctober 05, 2016 4 minutes

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (or NHTSA, for brevity fans) has released information about a new investigation into approximately 155,000 Nissan Versa vehicles from the 2012 line.

According to the report, three complaints have thus far been filed by motorists who have experienced allegedly-spontaneous side airbag deployment from forcefully closing their car doors.

There isn't a lot of substantive information yet; the investigation was opened just last week. For anyone keen to follow its developments, its NHTSA Action Number is PE16013. In the meantime, there haven't been injuries reported from this flaw, but it seems fair to extrapolate from the described circumstances that a sufficient jolt to a possibly-faulty sensor in the door is causing this problem.

I didn't see a lot of practical suggestions or insight about this dilemma out there yet, so I wanted to take a look into the matter and see what could be done to avoid calamity on the road (and what remedies are available to parties who experience it).

Watch Out for Exerting Excessive Force

Nothing has yet been conclusively proven, and at this time no recall has been issued. The alleged flaw in the sensor seems to respond primarily to significant force applied to the vehicle's doors. Of interest is that the official release states the issue may relate to "aggressively" closing the doors, which says to me that nobody should slam this door as a demonstrative gesture during an argument or tantrum. When said door is slammed, the Versa's side curtain airbags and the seat-mounted airbags on both driver and passenger sides are capable of deploying spontaneously, even without an accident.

To help you picture what could be rapidly expanding next to your head in such an event, here's a cross-section of a car's airbag system:

labeled Side Curtain and seat-mounted airbags

If that doesn't seem so bad, remember that the point of these airbags is to inflate in a fraction of a second to prevent a motorist from colliding with a window or the vehicle's frame during a crash. If the car truly is sitting still and the driver and/or passenger just accidentally slammed their door, the worst you're probably in for is a serious jump-scare.

However, it's not too far a stretch to think that other types of force exerted against a sensor squirrelly enough to go off from a door slam could also make the bags deploy. If for instance the car hit a dip in the road and went just a tiny bit Dukes-of-Hazzard airborne, the force of the landing could in theory be enough to jar the door sensor into deploying these safety countermeasures. In those described circumstances, maybe it would even be considered helpful, but what if the driver retained full control of the car and no one was jeopardized? If the bags deploy in a critical moment when the driver is trying to stabilize the vehicle, taking away access to peripheral mirrors and scaring the heck out of them, it could certainly prompt an accident. Given that those bags are inflated by small explosions that sound like a shotgun blast up close, it would take steely nerves indeed to disregard them during an already-stressful moment.

That's only a speculative scenario, of course. When we at the firm hear that a car part is possibly malfunctioning, the nature of our work leads us to think about ways it could affect drivers. Personal injury litigation is an element of consumer advocacy, first and foremost. The more information people have in their possession, the more and better decisions they are equipped to make about the products they buy and own.

Again, Nothing is Confirmed to Be Wrong (Yet).

We don't want to imply that the Versa is necessarily faulty--it's an investigation, not a confirmation--but it can't do any harm to suggest being careful when closing one's vehicle doors for a while until the situation is resolved one way or another. If the NHTSA comes back with confirmation that the sensors are in fact faulty and the airbags deploy prematurely or under incorrect circumstances, Nissan will most likely issue recall letters to all the owners they can track down by VIN. Given how many recalls they've been forced to issue over the last few years, it could be said that auto manufacturers are streamlining a response procedure for dealing with these recalls.

While the public focus is mainly on airbag recalls lately, both for failing to deploy and for deploying with dangerous explosive force. However, it's definitely worth noting that auto makers issue recalls for all kinds of defects; many times, it's not the airbags themselves that are faulty, but the sophisticated electronics (like sensors) that govern their deployment. Automobiles are sophisticated machines, and the more parts that have to interact, the tougher it can be to make them all play nice. It's not always a simple inconvenience when they fail to do so, given that cars are in essence high-speed projectiles powered by controlled explosions.

Saying "the job is hard" is not an attempt to excuse auto manufacturers when their machines malfunction--such instances are exactly why regulatory bodies like the NHTSA exist and document these problems. When enough adverse instances are reported, action is taken in the form of investigations and recalls. This helps stave off future injuries, but ex post facto action does not make whole those who suffered the malfunctions first and submitted the earliest complaints. Those people may be entitled to compensation if they suffered injury due to the auto makers' neglect.

If you or someone you care about experiences this spontaneous airbag deployment and suffers serious injuries, I encourage you to seek counsel from a personal injury attorney. Most firms, including Grossman Law, do not charge for a consultation, and Nissan may owe you compensation for your injuries and medical bills.