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Takata Airbag Recalls Continue to Expand

For months now, the Takata airbag recall has been making headlines. So far, the faulty airbags have been responsible for five deaths and hundreds of injuries around the world. Currently over 20 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide, including over 11 million recalled in the United States.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has become involved, urging owners of the affected vehicles to act on the recalls. However, the agency’s powers are limited. In November, the NHTSA called for a national recall of vehicles with affected driver’s side airbags. Takata refused to issue a nationwide recall, although the company said it would cooperate with manufacturers who chose to issue recalls. Honda, Takata’s biggest customer, has issued a nationwide recall in accordance with the request by the NHTSA.

The current recalls by Takata only apply to vehicles in high-humidity areas. Takata justified its refusal by stating that scientific evidence shows the malfunction is only present in high-humidity environments, and that expanding the recall would delay getting parts to those at greater risk. The NHTSA is preparing to take further action.

While Takata has not been very proactive, the affected automakers have taken matters into their own hands. Honda, Chrysler, and Mazda have significantly expanded their recalls of vehicles carrying the affected airbags. Last week, representatives from Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru met in Detroit to discuss the crisis.

The airbags, manufactured by Takata and installed in vehicles from 2000-2011, may explode when they inflate. The force of the explosion can shatter the air bag container, sending plastic and metal shrapnel into the driver and passenger. The problem has been linked to propellant chemicals in the airbags, and may be aggravated in high-humidity climates. As a result, there have been more widespread recalls in high-humidity areas, including Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Car owners that have been contacted by their cars’ manufacturers should make repair arrangements with local dealerships. Consumers who have not been contacted and are concerned that their vehicles may be affected can check by their vehicle identification number (VIN) here, or call the NHTSA’s hotline at 1-888-327-4236.

Even if all the owners take their vehicles in for repair, there remains the problem that there are not enough replacement airbags available. Takata estimates that it could take up to two years to produce enough replacement parts, even if it increases production by 50%. Some manufacturers have recommended that in the meantime, dealers disable the passenger seat air bag and tell consumers not to sit there. However, as the defective airbags have been found on both the driver’s and passenger’s sides, it is unclear how well this temporary solution will work.

It is important to remember that despite the problems with the Takata airbags, airbags in general have been very successful in saving lives. In frontal crashes, airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29% and front seat passenger fatalities by 32%. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that between 1987 and 2012, airbags saved 37,000 lives.