Recently, several U.S. legislators announced that they wanted a nationwide recall of Takata airbags instead of the regional one that U.S. automakers have implemented. According to Detroit News, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has now gotten into the act, demanding that Takata declare its airbags defective, which would facilitate a country-wide recall of the devices.
Dozens of airbags manufactured by Takata during the early part of this century have ripped upon deployment, spraying vehicle occupants with shrapnel and injuring drivers around the globe. The devices have been linked to at least five deaths, four of which occurred in the U.S.
Though tests are still ongoing, initial findings suggest that the ammonium nitrate propellant that Takata used in its airbag systems becomes unstable when exposed to high levels of humidity. As a result, the compound can explode upon deployment, causing airbags to rip.
Since last year, well over 14 million vehicles equipped with Takata airbags have been recalled worldwide, and at least 7.8 million of those have been U.S. models. Generally speaking, U.S. recalls have been limited to Southern states, California, and territories like Puerto Rico and Guam -- areas with persistent high humidity. The recalls have also been largely limited to passenger-side airbags, ignoring devices on the driver's side.
Unfortunately for Takata and its business partners, that's made many consumers in other parts of the country very worried. Those worries were recently exacerbated by reports of an exploding driver-side airbag in a vehicle registered in North Carolina, which is outside current recall zones.
And that, in turn, has caused voters to call their elected officials in D.C., which has led to increased pressure on NHTSA to resolve the situation.
For the most part, Takata has cooperated with NHTSA in recalling vehicles with faulty passenger-side airbags -- at least within certain geographic areas. But it's been reluctant to sign on to wider recalls and recalls of driver-side devices. On Wednesday, NHTSA sent Takata a very sternly worded letter (PDF) taking Takata to task for that foot-dragging:
Despite the severe consequences of air bag ruptures and mounting data demonstrating a safety defect, Takata responded that it did not agree with NHTSA's basis for a nationwide recall of driver's side air bags. Takata also continues to disclaim any finding of a safety-related defect and has failed to submit the requisite Part 573 Safety Recall Report regarding these frontal driver's side air bag inflator ruptures. However, Takata has not provided any new information to support its position that a regional recall is appropriate, nor has Takata provided any explanation for driver side air bag ruptures that have occurred outside the areas of high absolute humidity. As a result and based on currently available information, NHTSA is issuing this recall request letter to notify you that the Agency has tentatively concluded that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists on a national basis in the subject driver's side air bag inflators, and to demand that Takata issue a Part 573 Safety Recall Report addressing that defect....
And then, somewhat sassily for NHTSA:
The inflators...pose an unreasonable risk of death or serious injury that may result from a component that, when not defective, is designed to save lives. Air bag inflators that project metal fragments into vehicle occupants, rather than properly inflating the attached air bag, create an unreasonable risk of death and injury.
NHTSA went on to say that the regional recall agreed to by Takata is insufficient, due to the severity of the problem and the inexact nature of a geographically oriented recall. The agency has given Takata until this Tuesday, December 2, to declare its driver-side airbags faulty, paving the way for a nationwide recall. (Whether automakers will agree to that is a separate issue.)
If Takata doesn't comply, NHTSA could institute fines of $7,000 per day of delay per vehicle -- fines that would easily hit the $35 million cap that NHTSA is capable of levying.
Takata claims that a nationwide recall of both passenger- and driver-side airbags would take a very long time -- up to two years. The company also says that the recall would endanger lives by diverting replacement devices intended for high-humidity areas to regions with low humidity.
Both those points have merit, and as fans of science and fact, we agree that vehicles in the current recall zones should get priority when it comes to replacement parts. But there's no excuse for faulty products -- especially when those products are killing the very people they're meant to protect.