Some state cars missing side airbags

A 2006 Chevy Impala (image source: Wikimedia)

November 24, 2009 9:16:30 PM PST
The ABC11 Eyewitness News I-Team has uncovered a potential safety problem for hundreds of state workers. Some state-owned vehicles they're driving were built without an important safety device.

It's a follow-up to a story the I-team reported a few weeks ago about some consumers getting a surprise when they bought used 2006-2008 Chevy Impalas that did not have the side-impact air bags that were generally standard on those models when consumers bought new Impalas.

Click here to read that story

Now, the I-Team has discovered the State of North Carolina bought 750 Impalas and chose not to have the side air bags included as a way of cutting costs.

"It's shocking they've put a price tag on the lives of state employees," offered Mary Adelaide Bell with the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which represents more than 55,000 state workers. "The state should do everything in its power to keep the employees safe while they do their job."

The I-Team obtained the state contract for the impalas. It shows head-curtain side impact air bags are "deleted." The state saved $145 per vehicle.

"Isn't $145 worth saving even one life?" asked Bell "For that to be a conscious decision, it's just hard to imagine."

"It's a real low point for General Motors and for its fleet buyers," said Sean Kane with Safety Research and Strategies - a safety consulting firm.

ABC11 spoke with Kane at his office in Massachusetts.

"General Motors made the side-curtain airbag standard on these vehicles," he told ABC11. "But when it offered the vehicles to its fleet buyers, it told its fleet buyers, 'It's a standard feature, but if you really want to delete it, we can delete it and you can save your hundred and forty-five dollars.'"

When Kane studied federal crash data from 2001, he says he discovered in his research that side-impact crashes were responsible for 51 percent of all driver deaths.

"The issue is between life and death or serious injury and no injury when you have a side-curtain airbag, which is why many cars have been coming with them and will have them standard in the next few years," he said.

The I-Team discovered the state has 747 Chevy Impalas on the road today without the air bags. They're being driven by people who work for virtually every state agency - including The Department of Correction, Department of Transportation, and universities like NC State, NC Central, UNC Chapel Hill and Fayetteville State.

Nationwide, GM sold a total of 110,000 Impalas without side air bags. Until we told them, state employees did not know they are driving those cars.

"State employees are out every day putting their lives on the line to keep our communities and our highways safe, and $145 isn't too much to ask just to save one life," said Bell.

We wanted to ask the state about its decision, but, State Purchasing Officer James Staton decided to send us a statement instead. It says in part:

"The bid specifications were approved at pre-bid conferences with user agencies, vendors and Motor Fleet Management."

"As is typical in fleet models, these vehicles did not include optional equipment found in some retail models in order to lower the per-vehicle cost to fleet buyers - in this case, taxpayers."

As for GM, it no longer offers the option of buying a car without standard safety features. GM told ABC11 it used to let fleet customers buy cars without standard options so it could be competitive with other auto makers.

GM also said - even without side air bags - the vehicles do comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards.

Want to know if the car your renting or buying has the airbags? If the vehicle has airbags, the word "airbag" will appear above the doors. There's also a way you can decode the Vehicle Identification Number on an Impala. If the seventh digit is a "5," you don't have side-airbags in your car.

Click here for a picture

Side air bags have not been required on cars until now. Beginning with the 2010 model year, automakers have agreed to include side airbag protection.

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