Takata Is Up Sh*t Creek as the Faulty Airbag Fallout Continues

Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images
Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Problems with Takata airbags went under the radar for months, but now, with regulators being prodded to poke their heads in again, investigations into this potentially lethal problem are gathering steam. Many drivers are only just now finding out about a problem that safety agencies have been studying for a couple of years.

Due to a serious product defect, airbags made by mega-supplier Takata have a tendency to spew out metal pieces in the event of an accident, forcing numerous major automakers from Ford to BMW to recall their vehicles as a precaution — and causing others like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda to drop it as their airbag supplier altogether.

CBS news revealed that U.S. regulators are fining the Japanese company $200 million for violating National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules and mishandling recall processes for potentially explosive airbag inflators. The problem, in which small metal shards fly out of the airbag structure during a collision, has to do with the airbag’s inflator; inside the airbag, there’s a metal cartridge containing items called propellant wafers. In some situations, related to factors like temperature, humidity, and ammonium nitrate buildup, these small metal pieces can be injected into the passenger cabin when the airbag is deployed.

BIll Pugliano/Getty Images
BIll Pugliano/Getty Images

At least seven deaths in the United States have been attributed to Takata’s exploding airbags, and Takata has announced the recall that involves more than 33 million vehicles from around the industry.

The list of makes and models affected by the Takata recall reads like a laundry list of what you might find in a common suburban street or parking lot. Everything from BMW and Mazda to Dodge and Honda have been hit hard by Takata’s transgressions. Most recently, Toyota recalled 1.6 million vehicles in Japan — again — because of the fallout. More infuriatingly, Takata’s seeming unwillingness to cooperate with automakers or federal regulators on establishing accountability or forming a solution has made the company the latest poster child of corporate arrogance.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The NHTSA has provided a site for inputting a VIN number to check whether or not a vehicle is affected. Regulators recommend calling local dealerships and delaying the use of vehicles, if possible, until safety changes are made.

Additionally, Consumer Reports provides some advice on the problem. In “Everything You Need to Know About the Takata Recall,” the contributors stress the importance of calling dealerships and getting the safety fixes done. “As with all recalls, we recommend having the work performed as soon as parts are available and the service can be scheduled,” it said.

Notably, high humidity is a primary cause of the airbag propellant wafers breaking down. That’s why the recall is more important in hot and humid states like Florida and Georgia. Consumer Reports also provides a timeline of recall activities.

Consumer advocates have known about the issue for years. John Simpson is privacy policy director for Consumer Watchdog, a group that keeps a close eye on the auto industry. He told us that Takata’s comeuppance has been a long time coming.

“They hid it from regulators.” Simpson said of the airbag issues. “It’s an outrage … they should throw the book at them.”

An initial investigation by the NHTSA in 2014 did not report any fatalities; that investigation was based on six reported failures in Florida and Puerto Rico. Since then, however (as of June 2015), the NHTSA and others have documented the eighth fatality from a Takata airbag, this time in Los Angeles, California.

During the Senate hearing held in June to discuss the problem, a Takata executive suggested that the reported death toll could go even higher if a compensation fund is established for victims, as it has been for GM’s infamous recalls. A Wall Street Journal piece reveals legislators discussing the limited ability of the NHTSA to police the industry, and how to deal with the defective airbag issue. But with some of its largest suppliers now jumping ship, it looks like Takata’s negligence and obstruction could be its downfall, not legislation. Still, you can expect that Takata’s deadly airbags will continue to make news for some time, and if you have a car covered by the recall, keep asking your local dealers when help will be available.

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