An attempt to save money takes lives and ultimately costs millions in fines. Are you flipping mad yet? You should be. Updated February 14, 2017
In the largest auto recall in history, tens of millions of vehicles have been recalled to have 28.8 million airbags replaced. Takata airbag inflators have injured more than 100 people and killed 11 people: 10 in the U.S. and 1 in Malaysia, with the most recent being a 17 year old Texas girl on March 31. The 17 year old was driving a 2002 Honda Civic and, according to Honda, several recall notices had been sent to the registered owners (they claim not to have received any).
This story has been in the news for years and you’ve probably paid some attention to it just because of its frequency on the news, but with the media’s fixation on the election, disease du jour, ISIS, and so on, a few airbag deaths get left behind in our daily news consumption of dread.
What’s been happening is that the airbag itself isn’t killing drivers: it’s shrapnel from the explosive device used to deploy the airbag. These metal fragments explode out at such a force that they slice right through skin, eyes, arteries, and even spinal columns. This is happening when the airbags deploy in minor crashes, collisions from which the victims should be walking away.
Before you run out and disconnect your airbags (and I know some of you will), these explosive devices, or inflators, are needed in order to deploy the airbag. In fact, they’re in other safety devices throughout your vehicle and activate in crashes, but we’re focusing on airbags here. When the airbag sensors detect a crash, the inflators ignite, starting a chemical reaction that fills the airbag with gas. It sounds crazy scary, but airbags have saved thousands of lives. Between 2010 and 2013 (the latest year from which we have data), 9,554 lives were saved by frontal airbags. Many thousands upon thousands more lives have been saved since the frontal airbag was introduced in the ‘70s.
Problems with exploding airbags initially cropped up back in 2004 in Alabama when a Honda Accord airbag exploded, injuring its driver. Because it was the first incident, both Honda and Takata chalked it up to being an anomaly and moved on without issuing a recall. According to the New York Times, Honda did report the incident to NHTSA, but didn’t elaborate in the report that it was an airbag rupture. Then again in 2007, three more ruptures were reported to Honda, and again, Honda did not elaborate in their reports to NHTSA that the airbags were exploding. In 2007, Honda told Takata of the ruptures and Takata went to work to find the cause: manufacturing problems at their Mexican plant. However, the ruptures continued and after more testing, Takata linked the problem to manufacturing problems at their Washington state factory.
Recalls began in 2008 and initially only driver’s side airbag inflators were recalled, but passenger airbag inflators were added as those started to rupture as well. Then in August 2015, side airbag inflators came under inspection when a Volkswagen Tiguan’s seat mounted side airbags ruptured after a collision with a deer. GM also reported a rupture to NHTSA. This “SSI-20” inflator is found in Volkswagen and GM vehicles and has been recalled in those vehicles too.
The recalled Takata inflator assemblies use a propellant made of ammonium nitrate, which is susceptible to long-term heat and humidity. Takata is the only airbag manufacturer to use ammonium nitrate, an inexpensive chemical. According to a New York Times article, engineers within the company even expressed concern to management about using it. Ammonium nitrate is compressed into small tablets similar in size to baby aspirin, or into wafers. It becomes unstable when it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and when temperatures vary from day to night, which any vehicle owner knows can happen to a vehicle left outside in the sun. Other manufacturers use guanidine nitrate, a more expensive but stable propellant, and Takata has followed suit for its new inflators.
The obvious solution to the exploding inflators problem is to not use ammonium nitrate, but since it’s such a major component of Takata design, it can’t be completely eliminated right away. Other airbag manufacturers, such as Autoliv, TRW, and Daicel, are helping supply fixes, but since their designs are different than the Takata design, their replacement inflators must be specially fitted to work. In the meantime, Takata has incorporated a desiccant to absorb extra moisture to make it less likely a rupture will occur. We find desiccant packets in everything from pill bottles to shoe boxes to purses, but will this simple fix work in an airbag? The next testing step for the ITC is to see if the desiccant is helpful. NHTSA has given Takata until the end of 2019 to prove it’s safe; it’s not allowed to use ammonium nitrate on new orders, but it can to fill existing orders. This leads to an interesting question: what is an existing order? Is a new model year vehicle an existing order or a new order? Can Takata continue to place ammonium nitrate inflators in new vehicles simply because it fulfills an outstanding order that was placed years ago?
Vehicle manufacturers can take some responsibility in the matter and some have. Honda, which owns a minority stake in Takata, stopped using Takata airbags in its vehicles in late 2015. All but one of the deaths so far have been in Honda vehicles; a man from Georgia died in December 2015 in a 2006 Ford Ranger. Nissan, Ford, Mazda, and Toyota have also fired Takata as a supplier of airbag inflators in their new model vehicles, following Honda’s lead.
What Is the Connection to Child Passengers?
Scott Yon, Chief of the Vehicle Integrity Division in the Office of Defects Investigations at NHTSA, hinted that they’re at little risk of injury because they’re not driving. Passenger side inflator ruptures have injured, but not killed, so far. This is because the passenger side inflator is buried inside the dashboard housing and deploys in an upward motion first, then toward the passenger. However, since there have been injuries recorded, this is another incentive, a very strong one indeed, to keep children in the back seat.
When asked if any shrapnel was found in the back seat, where children under 13 should be sitting at all times in proper restraints for their size and age, NHTSA replied that none was seen. NHTSA also stated that there was no evidence of shrapnel in the roof liners of vehicles where inflators had exploded, which indicates that all damage remained in the front seats. That doesn’t mean that it will always be that way, though, since inflators for side curtain airbags can be found at the A pillar, in the roof line, or at the C pillar, behind the back seat.
When answers weren’t forthcoming as to why these inflators were exploding, a group of 10 automakers calling themselves the Independent Testing Coalition (ITC), led by former NHTSA Administrator David Kelly, hired Orbital ATK, a rocket science and defense company, to run independent tests and found that failure of the airbags is likely due to a combination of the use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant, the construction of the inflator assembly, and the long-term exposure to humidity and heat found in many southern states. The ITC consists of Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Ford, GM, Mazda, Fiat Chrysler, and BMW, and formed in 2015 when it became clear that their vehicles would be affected by the recalls.
You know when certain chemicals react to water there’s an awful reaction (e.g., trying to put a grease fire out with water)? What NHTSA also found in its testing was that ammonium nitrate doesn’t age particularly well. So add heat and humidity to an unstable chemical and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.
What does long-term exposure to high heat and humidity mean anyway? In testing the recalled inflators pulled from fixed vehicles, it became obvious to Takata there was a zone in the U.S. where most of these vehicles had spent a significant amount of their time. The southern Gulf Coast states, well-known for high absolute humidity—eastern Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia—had vehicles where the inflators exploded on testing. Interestingly enough, there were inflators tested in other parts of the U.S. that exploded without explanation; that is, until it was discovered that these vehicles had come from a Gulf Coast state. Being in a warm, humid climate for a vacation, or even for a winter isn’t enough for the propellant to break down. Ruptures start happening in the window between 5-10 years, so we’re talking a significant amount of time.
Vehicles manufactured before 2008 have priority for repair in the recall of the inflators because of the aging propellant issue. NHTSA has mandated that these vehicles have their replacements before the end of 2017. It’s not that easy, though. They may get their replacement, but may also need another before it’s all said and done. Because there are so many inflators that need to be replaced posthaste, newly designed parts simply aren’t available; this is called an interim remedy. Rather than allow defective inflators to stay in vehicles, vehicle manufacturers are replacing them with newer versions of the same Takata inflators. This essentially sets the clock back to 0 and gives Takata and other inflator manufacturers time to design a new inflator that won’t react to environmental issues.
Each affected vehicle manufacturer was asked by NHTSA to prioritize its recalled vehicles into four risk groups:
Priority Group 1: Highest risk vehicles, generally the oldest from model year 2008 or older, have spent time in the high absolute humidity region, and have either a recalled driver’s inflator or both recalled driver’s and passenger’s inflator; parts must be on hand for repair by March 31, 2016, and total completion of remedy must be by December 31, 2017
Priority Group 2: Intermediate-high risk vehicles that include all vehicles with recalled driver’s inflators not in Group 1, and vehicles with passenger inflators that have higher rupture frequency and have spent time in the high absolute humidity region; parts must be on hand for repair by September 20, 2016, and total completion of remedy must be by December 31, 2017
Priority Group 3: High risk vehicles, generally outside the high absolute humidity region, with only passenger inflators or those with certain passenger inflators that have a lower risk of rupture; parts must be on hand for repair by December 31, 2016, and total completion of remedy must be by December 31, 2017
Priority Group 4: Vehicles that will require an interim remedy because alternate parts are not available. Risk of rupture is very low in the years following the fix.
However, NHTSA is concerned about 2 types of owners in response to the interim remedy: the type who will wait years with a dangerous airbag unit until the final fix is available and the type who will get the interim remedy fix and never go back for the final fix. Both would be driving potentially deadly vehicles and what about when they sell or trade-in those vehicles? It then becomes the next potentially unaware owner’s problem. It’s imperative that if a vehicle qualifies for an interim remedy, it should also go back for the final remedy.
Culture of Non-Safety
There is a culture of non-safety within Takata that is shameful. Takata engineers manipulated testing data to make it appear that the inflators were defect free as far back as 2000. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation received emails showing proof of data tampering after recalls in 2008 and 2009. To this day, Takata maintains there is no indication of manipulation of data. At the Monclova, Mexico, plant, where, according to Reuters, the majority of North American Takata airbag inflators are manufactured, safety took a back seat. Welds were not made airtight, meaning the explosive material was exposed to humidity and air, wrong parts were inserted into driver’s side inflators, and even one time, bubblegum had been inserted into an inflator. Monclova workers and supervisors knew about it: they sent emails to each other and had presentations on the lack of quality control.
As a result of the deception, failure to provide full information on the defect to NHTSA, and sale of defective products, in November 2015, NHTSA has issued Takata the largest civil penalty in NHTSA history for not disclosing defects: $70 million in cash and an additional penalty of up to $130 million if it violates the terms of the deal. This is also the first time in the 15 years since the TREAD Act was implemented in 2000 that NHTSA has used its legal authority to accelerate safety defect repairs if a manufacturer’s remedy plan was likely to put Americans at risk, which Takata airbags clearly do. To make sure that Takata complies with the imposed Consent Order and to oversee the coordinated remedy program, NHTSA selected John D. Buretta, former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice Criminal Division. Buretta was the leader of the Deepwater Horizon Task Force and a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor.
Honda isn’t innocent in this. If you’ll recall, it didn’t fully disclose the depth of the airbag problems to NHTSA. In something suggestive of a cover-up, Honda went to Takata after the inflators ruptured instead of working with NHTSA, the U.S. regulatory agency in charge of vehicle safety. Instead of recalling the airbags after the first death, Honda stuck its head in the Takata sand and it will be liable not only for lawsuits from victims, but for recall repairs and rental vehicles for those people who request them while their vehicles are being repaired.
How do you know if your vehicle is affected?
The best way is to go to the NHTSA’s list of vehicles affected by the Takata recall. Check this list as frequently as every week since vehicles may be added that often (NHTSA has launched a new recall awareness campaign). You can also use their VIN look-up tool. You can find your VIN on your dashboard at the very bottom of your windshield on the driver’s side or on your insurance card. It will show you if your vehicle is not only a part of the Takata recall, but also a part of any unrepaired recall in the last 15 years. If you’re a child passenger safety technician, have this particular vehicle recall be a part of your recall checks, especially if you’re in the South, which is in the high absolute humidity region.
What Should You Do?
- Check frequently for news on Takata. This recall is very dynamic with information coming almost weekly, so set your media apps and Google News to alert you when there’s a hit on the topic.
- If your vehicle is under recall, have it repaired as soon as you’re able. This is a safety recall and it is important. As with any other recall, your vehicle will be repaired for free.
- Keep all children under age 13 in the back seat appropriately restrained in child seats. In doing so, you’ve given them a great chance of coming out without a scratch in any crash.
- If you are buying a used vehicle, purchase a CARFAX report. For $39.99, you can check the history, which includes where the vehicle was purchased and serviced. Remember that even if you live in the desert now, the vehicle you want to buy may have lived in the south for years before you found it.
- You can also run the VIN number of any used car you’re looking at through the NHTSA VIN look-up tool.
- Do not disconnect your airbag. You will find online automobile forums with advice telling you how to disconnect your airbags to appease a worried spouse, but this is dangerous advice. If you live in a drier climate, your inflators aren’t at the same risk level as they are if you are in the HAH risk zone. There’s also a good chance that your airbags will work properly in a crash and protect you. Keep your airbags in service and have passengers sit in the back seat until your vehicle is repaired.
- If you’re very nervous about driving your recalled vehicle, NHTSA recommends asking your dealer for a loaner vehicle until yours can be repaired.
- Do not replace your airbag yourself or have an independent shop replace your airbag. Right now, only dealers are certified to perform recall replacements.
- Do not buy replacement airbags off the Internet, including eBay, or from a salvage yard. These may contain a recalled inflator. NHTSA is aware of individuals selling airbags with recalled inflators.
While the risk of an inflator rupturing is fairly low, your risk of being seriously injured or dying if it does is quite high, which is why this particular recall is so important. According to NHTSA, almost 1 in every 10 driver-side ruptures results in death. It is imperative that if your vehicle may have been in a high absolute humidity zone, it be checked for airbag recalls frequently, and if it is recalled, it be taken in to a dealer as soon as you can make an appointment for it. If your vehicle only qualifies for an interim remedy, be sure to follow through with the final fix when it’s available.
What Takata did is inexcusable. This is another example of a company putting the almighty dollar above human lives, but in the end, did they really save any money? Lawsuits have been filed and recalls and fines have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Car and Driver, and several executives. They’ve already asked vehicle manufacturers to help pay for the recall. Even if they come out of this recall fiasco alive, they won’t be smelling pretty but it’s hard to gauge what their reputation is over in Japan where they are based. We get in our vehicles, put on our seat belts, and start to drive thinking we’ll be protected by our airbags if we crash. Some of us upgrade our vehicles in order to have the latest in safety features. To learn that we can be killed despite doing everything we’re supposed to is ironic—don’t you think?
Thursday, May 5, 2016
On Wednesday, May 4, NHTSA has issued a recall of another approximately 35 million airbag inflators, more than doubling the world’s largest auto recall in history. This brings over 20% of U.S. vehicles into recall status—a shocking number, especially considering many owners don’t realize their cars are recalled. This will be the recall that shapes how NHTSA handles recalls in the future: will we see major changes in owner notification? A severe weather alert-like notification on our phones to catch our collective attention? DMV tagging our registrations when there’s a recall?
In a new document amending the November 3, 2015, Consent Order, NHTSA finally outlines specific states in the danger zones. Zone A states comprise those states at the highest risk for inflator rupture and have the highest temperatures and humidity. Zone B states have moderate temperatures and humidity cycling and so on. Owners of vehicles in Zone A should check for recalls frequently—at least once a week—and have their vehicles repaired as soon as possible once a recall is announced. Owners in Zone B should stay on top of the recall and follow any recall notice seen regarding their vehicles. All vehicle owners should check their vehicle VINs using the NHTSA VIN look-up tool.
|Zone A||Zone B||Zone C|
|Georgia||District of Columbia||Idaho|
|Puerto Rico||Nebraska||New Hampshire|
|American Samoa||Nevada||New York|
|Guam||New Jersey||North Dakota|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||North Carolina||Rhode Island|
Saturday, May 28, 2016
At at time during which we wonder if anything is being done in Congress, two Senators, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), authored a letter to NHTSA head Mark Rosekind asking for the agency to release to the public exactly which vehicles have the explosive Takata ammonium nitrate inflators. Right now, the only way owners of vehicles will know they have these inflators is when they are recalled. While it’s not necessary for owners to know the origin and composition of every part of their vehicle, in this case since the component has the potential to literally blow up in their faces, it’s a necessity and a right. The full text of the letter can be found here.
Over 12 million more vehicles were recalled yesterday by 8 automakers: Honda, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Ferrari and Mitsubishi. Your recall status—when your vehicle will be up for repair—depends upon which part of the country you live in, so it’s best to check your VIN against NHTSA’s VIN checker.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
If the previous warnings about Takata airbag inflators blowing up and impaling drivers with shrapnel weren’t enough to scare you into immediately having your recalled vehicle repaired, Thursday’s warning from NHTSA should. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recommended that the next time certain 2001-2003 Honda and Acura vehicles are driven, they should be driven immediately to the dealership to be repaired.
- 2001-2002 Honda Civic
- 2001-2002 Honda Accord
- 2002-2003 Acura TL
- 2002 Honda CR-V
- 2002 Honda Odyssey
- 2003 Acura CL
- 2003 Honda Pilot
New data on the inflators in these model year Honda and Acura vehicles show as high as a 50% chance of inflator rupture should a crash cause the airbag to deploy, especially in vehicles from areas of high heat and humidity, including Gulf Coast states and Southern California. These vehicles were recalled between 2008 and 2011, but as many as 313,000 still have not been repaired. It is imperative that all drivers of these vehicles check the VIN in the VIN checker. Repairs are free and available right now for these vehicles.
Friday, August 26, 2016
One of the biggest questions all along has been is if vehicle manufacturers are continuing to use the deadly non-dessicated Takata inflators in new model year vehicles. We finally have an answer after Ranking Member Bill Nelson of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation asked 14 vehicle manufacturers if they were selling new cars with the inflators. Not surprisingly, not all manufacturers responded, but of those that did, Fiat Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler Vans, Ferrari, and Mercedes Benz admitted that they are, indeed, selling new vehicles with the non-dessicated ammonium nitrate inflators. BMW also admitted that the inflators were used in some 2015 vehicles, but didn’t say whether or not they’re currently for sale.
Because of the structure of the recall, all these new vehicles now being sold with the defective inflators will be recalled before the end of 2018. These vehicles are considered “safe” because the ammonium nitrate reacts to high heat and humidity over time before becoming unstable.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Two more confirmed deaths, one in Malaysia and one in California, were blamed on the exploding inflators last summer. Both were in Honda vehicles that had been under recall, yet not repaired.
The U.S. government has fined Takata $1 Billion as a punitive measure, separate from the $70 million settlement between Takata and NHTSA levied in November 2015. Takata pled guilty to wire fraud and will pay the fee as follows: $25 million criminal fine, $125 million for victim compensation, and $850 million for compensating automakers.
Want to read more? These articles were particularly helpful:
http://blog.caranddriver.com/massive-takata-airbag-recall-everything-you-need-to-know-including-full-list-of-affected-vehicles/#list: This article keeps a running update of everything Takata-recall-related.
http://www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/pdfs/20160504-FactSheet-May2016-Takata-Recall-Expansion.pdf: This is the latest NHTSA Recall Expansion Fact Sheet.
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-10-27/air-bag-maker-in-global-crisis-used-unusual-explosive: This article provides a history of Takata as a company.
https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/b7da3f6c-d3af-41eb-bbb3-3310c9379cfe/39B715D6C3E584D69A6F6A9861A6BB89.erdman-testimony.pdf: Victim Stephanie Erdman’s prepared testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Hearing on 11/20/14. Warning: contains the *very* graphic photo taken by the attending EMT immediately after she was removed from her vehicle.