Air Force Lt. face of Takata air bag failures

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A tearful young Air Force first lieutenant took center stage at a congressional hearing on the recall of more than 7.8 million vehicles by 10 automakers for air bags linked to five deaths and dozens of injuries in Takata air bags.

Air Force Lt. Stephanie Erdman, 29, was injured in September 2013 crash when she was driving her 2002 Honda Civic on Highway 98 West near Destin, Florida, on her way to get some groceries with a friend.

She’s been featured on national TV and graphic photos of her were displayed with a serious eye injury along with her wrecked car at the hearing

“As I was driving, a car turned left in front of my Honda and we crashed,” Erdman said. “When the impact occurred, shrapnel from my car’s air bag inflator shot through the air bag cloth and embedded in my right eye and neck. I was instantly blind on my right side. And then I felt gushing blood. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to bleed out.”

When she went to the hospital, they did a cat scan. “The imaging showed that a metallic foreign body had punctured and fractured my right nasal bone, and the tip of that shrapnel had embedded itself in my right sinus. Since that day, I have endured multiple surgeries and therapy. I have more of them to go,” Erdman said.

Erdman has sued Honda over the incident. She declined to say if Honda has offered her any compensation. She told Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president for global quality assurance to “please do the right thing and please remove these vehicles from the roads.” She said Honda and Takata need to follow up their statements with actions.

She told the committee “it is my sincere hope that no other families will have to go through the terrible ordeal that my family has had to endure because of what happened to me or experience the same kind of terror that myself and others who have been injured and killed because of these defective air bags have felt.”

Erdman said Honda claims that they notified the Honda-certified dealership where she bought her Civic about the recall for the driver’s side air bag in February 2010. “I took my car into that dealership for service three times after they received the recall notice for my car. They never told me about the recall. They never performed the recall repair on my vehicle. And they never warned me about what might happen if my air bag deployed,” she said.

Honda North America Executive Vice President Rick Schostek said the company and its dealers missed chances to complete the recalls: "We have to do better,” Schostek said. “To our everlasting regret, we missed those opportunities.”

Erdman said automakers must take responsibility.

“I believe in personal responsibility. I believe in admitting that you are wrong when you are wrong. I believe in holding companies accountable for their actions. The safety of the American public was not held paramount by these companies. These companies did not play by the rules when they failed to timely and fully notify NHTSA and customers like me about this defect,” she said. “Something must be done to stop this deadly trend that we see time and time again in the auto industry.”

She tearfully urged Congress to hold automakers accountable. “I worry that once all of the attention that is now focused on these deadly products subsides, these companies will not follow through with making sure that the defective air bags in every last one of these affected vehicles are removed. I ask that the Committee do everything in its power to make sure that each and every vehicle affected by this defect is made safe.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who chaired the hearing, said Congress wouldn’t forget. “We will do that lieutenant. You have our promise and that’s why we had this hearing today,” Nelson said. “Between what the lieutenant said and the pictures, I think you get the picture.”