Takata Airbag Recall Might Not Be So Big After All: Is It NHTSA That Needs Fixing?

June 11, 2015

Last month, when Takata agreed to nationwide recalls of its fatally flawed airbags, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that some 34 million vehicles would be affected. But Reuters has sifted through various documents filed with NHTSA and determined that the real number is closer to 16.2 million.

In NHTSA's defense, the Takata recall is hugely complicated, spread across ten automakers, involving recalls that cover varying geographic areas -- some small, some large. And because the Takata recall is also split between driver-side and passenger-side airbags, multiple recalls often affect the same car, increasing the opportunity for double-counting vehicles.

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And obviously, 16.2 million vehicles is nothing to sneeze at. With more than 250 million vehicles on the road in America today, the Takata recall will still affect nearly one in every 16 cars. 

However, other auto recalls have approached that number, and a few have surpassed it -- for example, Ford's 2009 recall of 17.5 million vehicles to replace cruise control switches prone to combustion.


To us, though, the issue isn't so much whether the Takata recall affects 6 million cars or 106 million. The real issue is: who's keeping track of the numbers? Who's watching repair stats to ensure that cars are being fixed in a timely manner? When all the dust has settled, who's going to be able to say that 75 percent or 90 percent or 50 percent of the vehicles affected by a given recall were ultimately serviced?

It would be easy to dodge those questions by trying to write off the Takata recall as an anomaly. However, many recalls are spawned by faulty components from suppliers (for example: Bosch's poorly made fuel pumps), and the reliance of automakers on those third parties is likely to increase in the future. Ten years from now, when there's a flaw in a Tesla-made battery or software from Apple or Google, how will the recall be handled?

We don't have any easy answers. However, we have to wonder if NHTSA isn't doing more harm than good in situations like this. At first, the agency was reluctant to push for widespread recalls of Takata's airbags. Next thing we knew, it was fining Takata $14,000 a day for being uncooperative. At the very least, that seems like mixed signals.

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There are other examples of poor performance, including NHTSA's recent admission that it flubbed a probe of GM ignition switches and automakers' concerns that NHTSA isn't doing enough to encourage consumers to have their recalled cars repaired. 

If we were in charge, the first thing we'd do -- after putting Donald Trump's hairstylist behind bars once and for all -- is take a good, long look at NHTSA's goals and structure. We have a hunch that the agency either needs to be given more authority to demand recalls from automakers -- a shortcoming that's on full display in NHTSA's current dealings with FCA -- or it should be downsized into an office somewhere in the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

One thing is crystal clear, though: NHTSA itself is due for a recall. Something needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed soon.


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