A B.C. mom is warning others about the dangers of car seat warmers, after hers burned the driver’s seat, causing her to pull over quickly, thinking her Volkswagen Jetta was on fire.
"My son was in the car with me. I was about to turn on to the busy street," said Lisa Cunnian of Nanaimo, B.C. "I was terrified."
Cunnian was driving out of her neighbourhood last month, with her toddler in the back, when she said she smelled smoke and felt her jeans burning.
"It’s just such a safety hazard to be in traffic with a fire on your seat," she said. "If I'd pulled into oncoming traffic ... there are just so many things that could have gone wrong."
She discovered the seat warmer had malfunctioned, essentially by short-circuiting and burning up.
As it turns out, this is a well-known defect in many vehicles, particularly VW models.
Cunnian’s Jetta is a 2004 model. She said VW Canada informed her it was one of 94,000 VW vehicles recalled and repaired once already for this problem before she bought it.
"I just thought it’s crazy. If this has been going on for so long, how have they not dealt with the problem yet?"
The affected vehicles were the Jetta, the Golf and the GI, made between 2002 and 2004. That recall ended in 2007.
There was also an earlier safety recall for seat warmers, for VW vehicles made between 1990 and 1997.
Cunnian said she had no idea her seat could pose a hazard and was shocked when she saw the numerous reports online.
"I can understand that parts wear out, but to have them wear out like that just seems extreme," said Cunnian.
VW tops complaints
Transport Canada has logged 119 complaints about overheating seat warmers since 1990, in vehicles made by a dozen manufacturers. Sixty-two of those reports were about Volkswagens.
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"A few complaints fall outside of the scope of the recalls, and Transport Canada is looking at them," said a statement from the department.
Burning seat warmers, in various makes of vehicles, have reportedly caused 287 injuries and 500 fires in the U.S. in the last 20 years. They are a particularly serious problem for paraplegics, who get injured because they can’t feel the seat getting hot.
In one U.S. lawsuit, Marshall Hicks, a 30-year-old disabled man, claims he was severely burned in his Chevrolet Silverado pickup in December. Hicks’s truck was specially equipped for the disabled through GM’s "mobility" program.
In another American case, paraplegic Peggy Stephenson claims she suffered third-degree burns after travelling in a rental car for two hours, unaware the seat warmer was on. The device didn’t malfunction, instead she claims it was just too hot.
In the U.S., regulators and industry are looking at new safety standards, such as maximum temperature limits and automatic shut-off features.
Consumer advocate Phil Edmonston, who writes the Lemon Aid used car guides, said it’s a problem the automotive industry doesn’t like to talk about.
"Overheating seats, or seats that burn your butt, have been in the industry ever since they started giving it as an option," said Edmonston.
"The more electronics you have in a vehicle, the more chances of having them fail, because the environment is so hostile to the proper operation of electronic systems.... If something is going to go wrong, it will go wrong with electronic system."
VW should fix: advocate
Edmonston believes no matter how old the vehicle is the manufacturer should fix any seat that overheats.
"Safety has nothing to do with age ... when you’ve recalled it and the same problem recurs, it’s just common sense. They should repair it again," he said.
However, in Cunnian’s case, VW Canada repeatedly refused to cover the cost of fixing her vehicle.
"I have reviewed your file ... and regret to advise there is no new information to cause us to alter our previous decision, since your warranty coverage has expired," said a final letter from VW Canada representative Nathaniel Therrien.
"It was just a flat out no. Based on the age of the car and mileage, they just said there is nothing that they can do," Cunnian said.
She said she understands seat warmers aren’t necessary. Still, she thinks she should not be responsible for the $600 repair cost.
"Obviously I can live without it, but the seat itself is wrecked ... I am a stay-at-home mom. I don't have a spare $600 to spend on replacing seats," said Cunnian. "And generally, I feel that car companies should replace things that are a hazard."
Go Public asked VW Canada what its cutoff point is — as far as the age of vehicle — for repairing hazardous seat warmers. Despite several calls and emails, the company did not respond.
"It just opens a whole can of worms for them and for other companies that manufacture seat warmers as well," said Cunnian.
A manager at a VW dealership in Nanaimo, where Cunnian took her car, said he understands her frustration, but the defect is not the dealer’s responsibility.
"We are happy to look after people’s cars … but taking on bills, you know, when we are not really involved, that’s a different story," said Josh Wynia, of Harbourview Volkswagen.
"From Volkswagen’s point of view, they have limitations to coverages, up to a certain time and mileage, and they go by that and stick to it.… They have a certain time where they have to cut things off."
Cunnian has reported her problem to Transport Canada and said she was told someone would come out to inspect her car.
She said by going public, she hopes to at least make people more aware of the risk with VW’s older vehicles.
"I just feel like nobody is taking me seriously at all. [Volkswagen Canada]
said, you know seat warmers are a luxury item, you don’t need to have them. I understand that – it is. It’s my little luxury in life. But they are not taking the safety aspect seriously."