J. Patrick Coolican
Shashi Chopra and her husband were on their way to meet their future son-in-law in March 2013 to discuss wedding plans for their daughter Tina.
The North Oaks couple were traveling the speed limit, 30 miles per hour, when another driver crashed into their 2002 BMW. The passenger-side air bag deployed, after which Chopra was completely blind. As she was loaded into the ambulance, the last thing she remembers is her son Vikas telling her, “Don’t worry. I’m here for you.”
“I stared death in the face,” she said at her home Monday.
As she told her story, Chopra was joined at her kitchen table by her family and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is highlighting defective Takata air bags found in millions of cars on U.S. roads. BMW recently expanded its air bag recall to 574,000 vehicles like the one the Chopras own.
The Senate Commerce Committee that Klobuchar sits on held hearings last week pressing an executive from Takata Corp., automakers and an official from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal government’s key auto safety regulator.
Klobuchar said the air bags in question can be found in 8 million U.S. vehicles and are linked to 139 injuries and four deaths. The air bags are like a “ticking time bomb,” ready to injure or kill despite their stated purpose to prevent injury, Klobuchar said. The defective air bags can explode and send shrapnel into the car.
‘World of darkness’
Chopra endured several surgeries as doctors tried to restore her sight, to no avail. Before the crash, she managed the family’s Plymouth restaurant, India Palace. She enjoyed walking the dog, reading, shopping and watching Indian movies and being with friends and family.
“All that is over. I haven’t seen real sunlight in a year and a half. I am living in a world of darkness,” Chopra said.
She said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, a heart palpitation and sleeps no more than two hours at a stretch.
The crash has upended family life. Her son lives at home to help her; her daughter arrives from Minneapolis every day at lunch time to help out. Chopra’s husband has had to cut back his hours at the restaurant and his real estate job. The financial upheaval forced them to turn to friends for a loan, Pramod Chopra said. The annual trip to visit family in India has been postponed indefinitely.
BMW spokesman David Buchko said the company was made aware of the air bag defect in 2013 and began a recall of 42,000 vehicles. With new information, the company expanded the recall in September to more than 500,000 BMW 3 Series of model years 2000-2006.
The Chopras say they were informed of the recall of their car in 2014 — about 18 months after the crash.
The company inspected the Chopra vehicle and found no evidence that the air bag had ruptured or was otherwise defective, Buchko said. The investigation of the crash and potential air bag failure is ongoing, according to Klobuchar’s office.
Time frame questioned
Klobuchar has aimed her scrutiny at Takata, an automotive parts company based in Japan. She said she has not received a satisfactory answer as to why the company did not alert regulators and the public sooner, given that the company may have known about the defect as early as 2004, or 2005 at the latest. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx this month, she also questioned whether auto safety regulators were slow and timid in confronting the problem.
Klobuchar said Monday she would like to see legislation that would allow automakers to exchange information about potentially defective parts, and make it easier for corporate whistleblowers to be compensated when they reveal safety problems.
The Chopras are considering legal options, but they say they have come forward to prevent similar accidents.
Their daughter, Tina, postponed her wedding for a year, hoping her mother’s sight would return. She married this year. The family crowded around a laptop Monday with Klobuchar, looking at happy wedding pictures. Shashi Chopra did not join them.