Choosing a Safe Car for your Teenager

Many parents dread the day their children turn 16.

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We look at this milestone not only as parents ourselves, but also through another lens – as product liability attorneys. Fortunately (and unfortunately), we’ve had the privilege of being trial attorneys on a significant number of high-profile auto defect cases and have seen firsthand the many things that can go wrong with a vehicle and the devastating injuries that can occur.

With this knowledge comes great responsibility, so we are dedicating this blog post to sharing with other parents some of the things we have learned – and will look for – to ensure the first car we choose (or have chosen) for our children is as safe as possible.

Tip 1: Consider the Seats

Defective seat backs are a common flaw, even in contemporary vehicles. Rarely do consumers give a second thought to the design or utility of seat backs in a crash. Neither would we, if we had not worked on seat back failure cases and seen the devastating injuries that can occur.

Unfortunately, the seat back mechanism in most passenger vehicles on America’s roads is less structurally sound than a lawn chair you can typically purchase from a discount retailer (see video below). As a result, our firm has handled cases where the seat failed and collapsed backward in a crash, causing occupants in the seat – or behind it – to suffer severe, sometimes fatal injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has petitioned many times to improve the safety standards for vehicle seats. Current federal standards merely require that a seat withstand a pull of 3,300 inch-pounds of pressure, which is exactly what the amount of pressure used in the lawn chair test video above. Based on their own crash test rating systems, in which seat backs routinely collapse, NHTSA has laid forth that the federal government should increase the standard to 20,000 inch-pounds. This change has yet to occur, which means automakers are still putting flimsy seats in their vehicles.

So, what does this mean when buying a vehicle for your son or daughter? How can you know a vehicle seat is safe? Truthfully, it may be difficult—or nearly impossible—to evaluate, but below are a few things to consider regarding vehicle seat safety:

  • Dual Recliners: The seat recliner is the mechanism that allows you to adjust your seatback from a vertical position to a reclined position. Many vehicles contain a recliner on only one side of the seat and the other side of the seat just pivots. Unfortunately, in a rear-end collision, a single-recliner seat will twist and collapse backward due to the fact that only one side of the seat is anchored (by the recliner) and the other side of the seat is allowed to move freely. With a dual-recliner seat, both sides of the seat are anchored equally, which prevents the twisting and reduces the risk of a catastrophic seat failure.

  • If you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, look to the right of the seat at the joint where the seat pan is attached to the seat back and check to see how it is attached. If it is simply a single bolt, then this likely means the seat is a single recliner. Instead, if there is a spring or gear mechanism, then you likely have a dual-recliner seat.

Tip 2: Research the Airbags

The Takata airbag recall is the largest safety recall crisis in U.S. history involving millions of vehicles equipped with potentially deadly airbags. Nearly 70 million vehicles are under recall because the airbags – on both the driver and passenger sides – can rupture or explode with excessive force and shoot metal shrapnel into vehicle occupant compartments. At least 13 deaths and more than 100 injuries worldwide have been linked to the defective airbags.

Whether you’re a parent buying a new or used car for your kids doesn’t matter. Don’t think for a minute that new cars are safer, because they’re not. In fact, a Senate report released this month confirmed at least four automakers – Toyota Motor Corp., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Volkswagen AG and Mitsubishi Motor Corp. – are continuing to sell some new vehicles with defective Takata airbags, despite knowing the serious risk they pose to consumer safety.

At issue is Takata’s use of a compound called ammonium nitrate that acts like a propellant to create a small explosion that inflates the airbags in a crash. The chemical propellant is housed in a metal canister designed to contain the explosion. But, ammonium nitrate can deteriorate and become unstable over time or when it is exposed to moisture in high heat and humidity, causing the propellant to burn too fast; blow apart the metal canister; and send shrapnel into the necks and faces of vehicle occupants.

New vehicles, however, continue to be sold despite a mandate to recall all affected vehicles by 2018, and public disclosure of all new vehicles that will need to be recalled is not required. Even worse, automakers are struggling to keep up with the pace of recalls and demand for replacement parts, leaving nearly one in four of the 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads equipped with dangerous and potentially fatal airbags.

Whether buying new or used, parents should conduct their own research to determine whether vehicles under consideration are equipped with Takata airbags. Don’t just rely on the car dealership to give you an honest answer about a vehicle’s airbags (see Tip 3 below). In your research:

  • Go to safercar.gov and enter the vehicle identification number (VIN) to determine whether it is included in the Takata airbag recall. If you don’t have access to the VIN number, request it before buying the vehicle.

  • Even in the pre-buying stage, you can go to the Takata Airbag Recalls page on safercar.gov for a complete list of the vehicles affected (model years and makes). This may help you to eliminate some vehicles before you even start the onerous process of searching for a vehicle.

Tip 3: Check for Vehicle Recalls

Most parents buy used cars for their teenagers. What’s critical to know is that used car dealerships perpetually sell used cars with dangerous recalls to unsuspecting consumers.

In a recent undercover investigation, “CBS This Morning” visited an Auto Lenders car dealership in New Jersey where a salesman admitted his dealership sells cars with the Takata airbag defect, but told them not to worry: “’There’s only two or three people killed by it, but they don’t even know what’s causing it,’” the salesman said.

Um. Wrong. (See Tip 2).

Car dealerships are not required by law to disclose whether their vehicles have unrepaired safety recalls, leaving it to consumers to determine the risks associated with the vehicle they buy. To make sure the vehicle is safe:

  • Enter the VIN number is safercar.gov for a complete list of recalls associated with the vehicle (as mentioned in Step 2).

  • Then, contact a local dealership that sells the brand of car you purchased and verify that all recall repairs have been made; for example, if buying a Toyota Camry, contact a local Toyota dealer and ask them to enter the VIN in their system. They will have record of all recall repairs made to your vehicle and can tell you if any repairs are outstanding.

  • If there are open recalls on the vehicle, ask about the extent of repairs required and how quickly they can be made.

Defective seats and airbags are only a few examples of the many vehicle defects we’ve seen through our work in auto product litigation. Parents should also keep in mind whether vehicles have a known propensity to rollover. Our law firm’s website can be a helpful resource to learning more about auto defects and the injuries they can cause.

For all the parents sending their teenagers out on the open road, please use these tips to help keep your kids safe. To all of the 16 year-olds out there, travel safe.

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