Should We Really Have to Fear Air Bag Shrapnel?

Dangerous automobiles, massive recalls, lawsuits alleging deaths and injuries, and complaints against government regulators. Just another month in the automotive industry.

More than 16 million vehicles containing dangerous air bags have been recalled. The air bags, manufactured by Takata Inc., are said to sometimes inflate with too much force and sometimes to actually explode, and in the latter case, to hurl pieces of metal and plastic shrapnel. Four deaths and more than one hundred injuries have been blamed on defective Takata air bags.

And we thought air bags were supposed to be saving lives!

Actually, the Takata air bag recalls have occurred in a series of announcements over the past several years, including almost 8 million vehicles recalled during the past 18 months. However, this month the danger associated with Takata air bags has become the object of worldwide attention.

NHTSA Advisory

One reason for the sudden interest is a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advisory issued last week. The purpose of the NHTSA advisory was basically to call upon people to take the earlier recalls seriously. The NHTSA notice listed 10 manufacturers — including Honda, Toyota and General Motors — and more than 50 models that are included in the recalls because they are equipped with Takata air bags. The affected cars were manufactured from 2000 to 2011.

However, to make things even more confusing, the recalls apply only to certain geographies that have high humidity, including the nearby Gulf Coast states of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida.

Air Bag Shrapnel Deaths

However, one death attributed to the dangerous airbags happened right here in the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City in 2009. Carl Albert High School student Ashley Parham was in what would normally be considered a relatively minor parking lot fender bender. However, her vehicle’s air bag unnecessarily deployed and shot a piece of metal into her neck. The teenager died within minutes.

Now, more than five years later, the NHTSA advises owners of vehicles with the same air bags to get them fixed or replaced. But only for vehicles in certain regions, not including Oklahoma. Is this making any sense to anyone?

Takata Corp., based in Tokyo, manufactures about 30% of all air bags. The company said last week that it will take months to manufacture the necessary replacement air bags to satisfy the recalls. Takata released a timetable that projected that it would complete 1.5 million replacement kits by Feb 2015. That’s about a third of the 4.3 million replacements that are needed.

However, please understand, Takata’s recent announcement was in response to the NHTSA’s advisory, which simply called upon vehicle owners to act upon recalls issued during the past 18 months. It sounds to me as if Takata’s response to that advisory is to say: if drivers are going to start taking our recalls seriously, we’ll start taking them seriously, too. Takata should have started working on replacement air bags back in 2009, after Parham’s death.

A few months after the Oklahoma tragedy, Gurjit Rathore, a 33-year-old mother of two in Richmond, VA, died in an auto accident that was strikingly similar to Parham’s. An air bag unnecessarily deployed, hurling shrapnel into her neck, causing her to bleed to death.

Just last month, a Florida woman, Hien Tran, was found dead in her car with fatal wounds to her neck after an auto accident. Police initially investigated it as a homicide, but investigators now believe the death was caused by air bag shrapnel.

What’s up with Takata’s exploding air bags? It may be due to the use of ammonia nitrate to inflate the bags. Ammonia nitrate becomes highly volatile when exposed to moisture, which is why the recalls have focused on areas that have high humidity.

Ammonia nitrate’s volatility is something Takata should already know about, ever since an explosion at its air bag plant in Monclava, Mexico, in 2006 that injured a dozen workers.

Time for NHTSA Overhaul?

So, five years after Ashley Parham’s death, eight years after the Moncalava explosion, last week the NHTSA encouraged vehicle owners to respond to recalls. But despite a problem years in the making, the NHTSA advisory sure sounded like a rush job. On Oct. 20, the agency said it was addressing the owners of more than 4.7 million vehicles. The very next day, the agency amended its advisory to say that a more accurate number is 7.8 million vehicles since 2013.

But why just go back to 2013 and why just focus on Gulf Coast states? Takata air bag problems go back several years and have resulted in deaths from California to Oklahoma to Virginia.

Along with Takata, Honda Motor Co. deserves plenty of scrutiny. Honda is Takata’s biggest customer. Ashley Parham was driving a Honda Accord. So was Gurjit Rathore. So was Hien Tran.

Honda noticed possible dangers associated with the air bags as early as 2004, when it filed a report with the NHTSA. Honda filed similar reports in 2007. However, the NHTSA never followed up on those reports, and Honda didn’t start issuing recalls in 2008.  Earlier action might have saved Ashley Parham’s life.

This week the Department of Transportation said it will conduct a review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This is not the first time the NHTSA has been accused of bungling. On Sunday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for an overhaul of the NHTSA.

Lawsuits

Also, this week, two federal lawsuits, one in the Southern District of Florida and the other in the Central District of California, were filed against Takata and auto manufacturers.

The petitions allege that Takata and the auto makers using its air bags failed to properly test the air bags, knew or should have known about the danger, concealed their knowledge from the public, and showed a blatant disregard for public safety.

Since the first Takata air bag recall took place in 2001 and the first report of air bag shrapnel was in 2004, it is hard to disagree with the assessment that Takata and the auto makers knew or should have known about the danger.

In 2014, the federal government says it is time to start taking the problem seriously. Takata’s response is that it will try to keep up.

Just more of the same from the automotive industry.