Back in July of this year, we published an article about a recall that happened at the same time as the 20 million-vehicle GM recall, which despite being nearly as dangerous was not as well-chronicled. While GM was trying to deal with cars that powered off without warning–deactivating power braking and power steering while vehicles were in motion–the Takata Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of air bags, was dealing with about 10 million defective products.
The New York Times article we cited this summer explained that about one-third of all 30 million recalled vehicles in the United States so far this year have been equipped with Takata air bags. But an updated story (with the sensational title “It Looked Like a Stabbing, but Takata Air Bag Was the Killer”) reveals that Takata has air bags in about 14 million out of over 50 million total recalled vehicles. Even worse than the figures, however, are the grisly facts of such accidents.
The story’s headline comes from the case of a Florida woman who died in intensive care after she was found in her Honda Accord with horrible wounds to her neck. Police initially assumed she’d been murdered, but in fact Ms. Tran’s air bag, “instead of protecting her, appeared to have exploded and sent shrapnel flying into her neck.” This is but one example out of a reported 139 injuries, 37 of which involve exploded air bags. One of the problems with the air bags in question is that their propellant–which must burn gas quickly in order for the bags to deploy–burns too hot. This causes the propellant container to burst, sending metal shrapnel throughout the car.
This year’s recalls, as opposed to other auto recalls in the past, have been treated with increasing urgency from federal regulators and other safety officials. This may be a response to public sentiment, which may be turning against popular automakers. Civil justice blog ThePopTort cites Business Week: “The growing number of air bag recalls also raise[s] doubts about whether carmakers have learned to address defects quickly and comprehensively after [GM’s] bungled ignition switch recalls and Toyota’s failures in 2009 and 2010 involving unintended acceleration. Honda is under separate probes over whether it underreported fatalities and injuries in the U.S.” Despite urging its customers to “act immediately” on news of the recall, Honda admits that “replacement parts for millions of the vehicles are not available, and will not be for weeks to come.”
Another problem that affects a large percentage of those driving dangerous vehicles is that they have no idea of the recall. The Times reports that there is simply “no law stipulating that a used car have any recall repairs made before it is sold again. Safety experts say that more rupture cases could be going unnoticed, or underreported, leaving affected cars on the road.” This is a major legislative loophole that, if closed, could save lives. While repairing the at-risk cars that remain in use should be a priority, regulators need to expend more effort catching defects like this before they pose a danger to millions of drivers and passengers.