By James C. Walker, Executive Director of the NMA Foundation, and the NMA Staff
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, ordered the recall of 60 million Takata airbags – which could ultimately affect 100 million vehicles around the world – because the inflators can blow apart and turn into deadly shards of shrapnel when the bags deploy. There have been at least 16 deaths and well over 100 injuries. The cause was the use of cheaper technology with ammonium nitrate as the propellant, but that chemical can deteriorate over time with temperature and humidity changes and become dangerously explosive on deployment.
Many automakers purchased the Takata airbags because they were cheaper, but the dangers did not become apparent for many years, so the size of the recall is massive. It takes time for parts manufacturers to gear up to design and produce enough replacement airbags with safer technology, along with their needs to produce units for new vehicle production. This led to long delays for vehicles to have safer new parts available. Fewer than half the driver side bags and less than a third of the passenger side ones have been replaced. Some automakers have offered “interim” replacements of new units with the old technology that have not had time to deteriorate, while waiting for the safer style parts to become available. And vehicles operated in southern states with higher temperatures and humidity have been given recall parts priority over vehicles in northern states.
Toyota offered to disconnect the dangerous airbags if customers so desired. NHTSA immediately advised owners to not disconnect the units because only a small percentage deploy dangerously and a disconnected bag offers no crash protection. Your defective airbag may kill or maim you but best to roll the dice in case of an accident.
Toyota and Subaru even went so far as to tell customers to keep passengers out of the right front seat until the Takata airbags have been replaced. We’ve reached a time when calling “shotgun” has become a literal game of Russian roulette.
NHTSA countered by making an absurd suggestion that people ask their dealers for a loaner car until the recall could be completed. There is no chance of dealers having millions of loaner vehicles available or the desire to endure that kind of expense for months or even years until all the new style parts become available.
There is only one solution, one that NHTSA apparently doesn’t have the resolve to enforce: Order automakers with defective Takata equipment to offer each car owner a free airbag disconnection service. Let the customer decide whether to gamble with his/her own safety and that of passengers, be they family or friends. Also, rental car and leasing agencies should be required to warn potential clients of vehicles with faulty airbags before contracts are signed.
NHTSA’s mission: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for keeping people safe on America’s roadways. In the midst of this crisis, the agency should heed its own words.