While the massive General Motors recall–involving over 20 million vehicles in only one year–has been getting a lot of news coverage (and a few posts on this blog), another recall may be nearly as dangerous for drivers. In fact, air bags manufactured by the Takata Corporation have “affected at least 10 million of the more than 30 million cars recalled in the United States so far this year, according to a New York Times review of regulatory records.”
The Times article reports that these faulty components are installed in vehicles made by Honda, Nissan, BMW, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota, three million of which are being recalled at present. These defects may cause these air bags to “rupture and send debris flying inside a car.” This presents an obvious and direct risk of injury to both drivers and passengers, but also presents a massive distraction should the air bag deploy even slightly, endangering other drivers on the road.
This recall comes after a long investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whose employees were made aware of at least three injuries that may be linked with such air bag defects. A spokesperson from Honda has been quoted on the record as saying that his company “was aware of more than 30 injuries and two deaths in the United States related to all the Takata air bags.”
At least one of these cases resulted in gruesome injuries: the Times noted that Kristy Williams was stopped in her 2001 Honda Civic when the air bag was mistakenly activated. It sent metal shards into her neck and carotid artery, which led to a number of surgeries, seizures, and several strokes. Honda and Takata have also settled with the families of two individuals in Oklahoma and Virginia, both of whom were killed when the air bags in their Honda cars ruptured.
One of the largest manufacturers of air bags in the world, Takata is no stranger to safety problems. In fact, the company was the subject of a recall of nearly nine million vehicles in the 1990s when it was discovered that it had sold millions of faulty seatbelts to automakers. Despite this dubious record, Takata is one of about three companies making air bags in the world and manufactures roughly one out of every five air bags worldwide. An official at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism in Japan has claimed that these problems may be due to excessive humidity and moisture. As even small amounts of liquid make their way inside inflators and propellants, the mechanics become volatile and dangerous.
American regulators and investigators fear that this problem first began over a decade ago at a plant in Mexico and that Takata’s records are spotty and incomplete. This is another example of a corporation that has been left to police the safety of its own products. As we have seen time and time again–with pharmaceuticals, BPA-laced cans and bottles, amusement park rides, and automobiles–when a company is left unchecked it will value its bottom line more than the safety of its customers. The company says that it will “strengthen [its] quality control and make a concerted effort to prevent a recurrence,” but the civil justice system remains the only effective deterrent to prevent dangerous products injuring innocent consumers.