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Wednesday, 20 May 2015 00:00

Takata Admits to Faulty Airbags; Largest Recall in History Ensues

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced on May 19 that the air bag manufacturer Takata has acknowledged that a defect exists in its air bag inflators, leading to a national recall of nearly 34 million vehicles.

The action, which was initially limited to states with high humidity, has increased the recall to more than 16 million defective passenger-side inflators and more than 17 million driver-side inflators.

“Vehicles are increasingly bought and sold across state lines and may move long distances across the country … it is in the best interest of consumers to expand this recall to all states," AAA President Marshall Doney said in a company press release dated May 19.

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) press release, over time, moisture causes changes in the structure of the chemical propellant that ignites when the Takata air bag deploys. The degraded propellant, based on ammonia nitrate -- commonly used in fertilizer -- ignites too quickly, producing excess pressure that causes the inflator to rupture and sends metal shards into the passenger cabin that can lead to serious injury or death.

There have been over 100 injuries linked to faulty Takata airbags.

Secretary Foxx announced that the NHTSA issued a Consent Order to Takata.

The Japanese manufacturer stated in a May 19 press release, “Under the Consent Order, Takata also has agreed to continue to cooperate with all future regulatory actions and proceedings that are part of NHTSA’s ongoing investigation and oversight of the Takata airbag inflators and accompanying remedial actions, continue to respond to all NHTSA information requests in a complete and timely fashion, and continue to provide NHTSA with all test results and data related to Takata inflators, among other provisions. While the Consent Order does not release Takata from potential civil penalties, NHTSA will not seek any civil penalties demanded under its letter dated February 20, 2015, beyond those that may be applicable before May 18, 2015. Under the Consent Order, NHTSA will take into account Takata’s cooperation in seeking any civil penalties against Takata in the future. Takata will work with its automotive customers to develop plans for reaching out to vehicle owners in order to maximize recall completion rates.”

In addition, NHTSA announced its intent to begin a formal legal process to prioritize the replacement of defective Takata inflators under the agency’s legal authority.

“Today is a major step forward for public safety,” Secretary Foxx said. “The Department of Transportation is taking the proactive steps necessary to ensure that defective inflators are replaced with safe ones as quickly as possible, and that the highest risks are addressed first. We will not stop our work until every air bag is replaced.”

According to a May 19 New York Times article, prior to recent investigations, the NHTSA had been criticized by lawmakers and safety advocates as being “too lax” on the industry. Back in 2009, the agency opened an investigation on Takata airbags that lasted for only six months due to “insufficient evidence.”

The New York Times article credited the NHTSA’s new found vigilance with the appointment of administrator Mark R. Rosekind.

“The steps we’re taking today represent significant progress toward that goal. We all know that there is more work to do, for NHTSA, for the auto makers, for parts suppliers, and for consumers,” said Rosekind. “But we are determined to get to our goal as rapidly as possible.”

It is expected that the service order of the vehicles will be based on which airbags hold the greatest risk of unsafe deployment, based on age and geographic location.

In the New York Times article, Rosekind stated that consumers could still drive their cars in the meantime, considering it could take several years until all repairs are completed.

“Although Takata has devoted tremendous resources to these efforts with some of the leading researchers in this field worldwide, including Fraunhofer ICT, it is clear that this is a complex issue which takes time to fully evaluate,” Takata stated in a May 19 press release. “The analysis to date suggests that the potential for this long-term phenomenon to occur was not within the scope of the testing specifications prescribed by the vehicle manufacturers for the validation and production of the subject inflators as original equipment.”

The Department has established a new website, www.SaferCar.gov/RecallsSpotlight, to provide regular updates on the status of this and other recalls and of NHTSA’s investigation.

"With the summer season approaching, we are reminded that 33 million Americans will be hitting the roads in their vehicles for Memorial Day travel and as time passes more motorists remain at risk from the faulty air bags that have been linked to at least 6 deaths [worldwide],” stated AAA Doney in a May 19 press release. “Motorists' safety is a national issue that is not confined by regional boundaries and should take precedence over profits."

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