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Airbag Recalls: What to Do If It's Your Car

Author: Andrew Harris

Here's the headline: Honda announced on February 3 that it is recalling more than 2.2 million vehicles in order to fix defective airbags made by the manufacturer Takata. But here's the backstory: This recall is one of many involving Takata airbags, which have been known to be defective since at least April 2013, when the airbag manufacturer acknowledged the defect. Honda and Takata have known of the problem since at least 2004, according to The New York Times.

So far, at least 24 million vehicles produced by 14 automakers and sold in the U.S. have been recalled, and the list is continuing to grow. Worldwide, the Takata recall figure is around 34 million. Takata just estimated that the recall could involve 287.5 million airbag inflators and cost $24 billion, $7 billion more than the previous estimate by an analyst for Jeffries Group LLC, according to a March 30, 2016, report from Bloomberg.

The cars on the recall list date from as early as the year 2000 and as late as 2015. They include luxury brands like Lexus, Infinity and BMW, and more modest models like the Toyota Corolla. Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz models were added to the list maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in late January 2016.

The root of the problem is not yet fully understood, but regulators are focusing on the use of ammonium nitrate in the airbag's propellant. This compound can break down over time, especially when it is exposed to moisture. (That is why one early recall focused on vehicles sold in Florida.) The compound can then combust, rupturing its metal casing. In the event of an accident, the airbag will deploy and release defective, shrapnel-shooting inflator parts at the driver or passenger, according to a Caranddriver.com blog.

As of the end of 2015, the defective airbags have been linked to 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries.

Complicating the issue, yet another manufacturer, Continental Automotive Systems, announced last week that its own airbags, installed in five million vehicles worldwide, have a defect that could make them fail to deploy in an accident. Continental Automotive is a German company, and Dodge Caravan is one of the cars affected, according to the New York TImes.

As of late January, only 27.3% of the Takata driver's-side airbags in vehicles on the recall list – and 25.8% of those on the passenger's side – had been replaced.

What You Can Do
  • Check the recall list for your car's year, make and model. NHTSA is maintaining a list on its website. Caranddriver.com also is updating a recall list. Repeat visits are recommended. Neither site is quite keeping up with the fast-expanding list of recalls. The new Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz models, for example, were not on the list as of Feb. 6. And more recalls are likely. Takata airbags have been installed in about 54 million cars sold in the U.S.
  • Try to track down your vehicle identification number (VIN). (Here are some suggestions for how.) With that, you can use the NHTSA website's look-up tool, which can tell you if your vehicle has ever been recalled for any safety issue, and whether the repair has been done. Like the agency's list, it may lag behind, so repeat visits are recommended.
  • Sign up for the NHTSA e-mail list for direct notifications of updates to its site.
  • If your car is on the list, contact a dealership that repairs your make and model. A delay in actually getting the replacement airbag is likely. With 34 million to date needed around the world, the agency is forced to set priorities for which vehicles get first dibs. Residents of high-humidity states like Florida and owners of older models are expected to get the highest priority, since humidity and the age of the vehicle both are believed to worsen the risk of a malfunction.
  • In all cases, the repair should be made at no cost to you.
  • Don't try to disable the airbag, or ask a mechanic to do so. It's a matter of weighing the relative risks of injury in a crash. You save more lives by leaving the airbags in place than you would lose lives by the airbag exploding, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told CNN.
  • If you can't avoid driving the car before it is fixed, Ditlow has these tips: Don't use the front passenger seat, if its airbag is on the recall list. And if any choice of drivers is possible, the tallest person should drive. Shorter people are at greater risk because they must sit closer to the airbag.
The Bottom Line

The Takata case may well be a record breaker in consumer recalls. At 24 million U.S. vehicles so far, the sheer numbers are closing in on 10% of the 253 million cars on the road in the U.S. It may take some persistence to even find out if your vehicle is on the list, and longer to get it fixed.

[Honda image: © School Photo Project.]

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