Takata Recall Tests the New and Improved NHTSA

Tomorrow October 22, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is scheduled to hold a public hearing ostensibly to explore coordinating a national recall of defective Takata airbag inflators. 

Takata Airbag Defect Explodes into Crisis

This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a Consumer Advisory urging “owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags.” The announcement was accompanied by an agency web page with an incomplete list of vehicles under recall, as well as mistakenly naming 14 GM models equipped with Autoliv airbags that were once recalled in 2002. The recalls, investigations and complaints look-up functions on its website were inoperable. Toyota announced that it would disable defective airbags in some affected vehicles until replacement parts were available and Acting Administrator David Friedman told The New York Times concurred, under the logic that a vehicle with no airbag was better than one that might spray the occupants with shrapnel upon deployment. 

The Continuing Case of Takata’s Exploding Airbags

Last week, four Japanese automakers – Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda – announced recalls of 3.4 million vehicles for “improperly pressurized” airbags made by Takata that could rupture, igniting fires or propelling metal fragments that could travel “upward toward the windshield or downward toward the front passenger's foot well.”

They forgot to mention that they could shoot straight out and hit you in the chest, as allegedly happened in 2009 to a Florida woman who owned a 2001 Honda Civic. And, they apparently forgot to mention that these airbags have been recalled over and over again since 2001.

In this latest campaign, Takata said that it only learned of the problem in 2011, after an alleged rupture of a passenger airbag inflator occurred in Puerto Rico. Certainly, it’s unlikely that 2011 was the first the supplier heard about this issue. There have been six recalls associated with Takata airbags that explode with too much force, spraying debris in their wake. This slow-moving rolling recall for manufacturing defects involving 13-year-old vehicles raises more questions than it answers. Why is Honda identifying a manufacturing process problem so long after these vehicles were produced?

The latest recall of 2000 to 2004 vehicles suggests an age degradation issue involving the propellant. Honda’s ever-changing explanations suggest that perhaps more than one manufacturing problem lies at the root of the inflator rupture problems.  A stroll through the recall documents also reveals Honda’s odd behavior – like recalling 830,000 vehicles to find 2,400 replacement modules. The depth of NHTSA’s involvement is also unknown. The agency began asking questions in 2009, without actually assigning the recall investigation an official Recall Query number. We suspect that the Recall Management Division has been keeping close company with Honda ever since.

Honda Inflator Ruptures Through the Years

2001: Recall 01V055

In February 2001, Isuzu reported in a Defect and Noncompliance Notice that it discovered three vehicles, a 2000 and 2001 Rodeo and an MY 2001 Honda Passport had passenger side front air bag inflator modules built with too much generant.

“In the event of a crash, the abnormal amount of generant could cause the airbag to burst. Occupants could be injured either as a result of debris or as a result of crash forces not counteracted by the air bag,” Isuzu said.

According to the defect report, the undisclosed supplier told the vehicle assembly plant that it had produced air bag units with incorrectly manufactured inflators in late January 2001. At the time, Isuzu said that it only knew of three defective vehicles outside its possession – identified by Isuzu 's undisclosed supplier using ”radiography images in the supplier's possession.”

So, it was a small, limited recall, since two of the vehicles were on the dealer’s lot, and only one – a Honda Passport – had been sold to a customer. 

When Occupant Detection Sensors Don't Make Sense?

On December 17, 2011, Hyundai settled, for an undisclosed sum, in a crash that wouldn’t and shouldn’t have caused a fatality but for a defective occupant seat sensor – a problem that may be more common – across many manufacturers – and more potentially deadly than realized.

On January 3, 2010, Donna Lynn Hopkins was a front-seat passenger in a 2008 Hyundai Accent, with her husband, Tom, at the wheel. As they approached an intersection on Highway 181 in Bexar County, Texas, another driver failed to yield the right of way. The Hyundai T-boned the other vehicle with sufficient force to deploy the airbags. But only the driver’s airbag inflated. The occupant seat sensor mat in the front passenger seat determined that, Donna Hopkins, a 165-pound woman, was actually a child, and turned off the airbag. Worse, Hyundai’s sensor strategy also turned off the seat belt pretensioner. Like some other manufacturers, Hyundai’s occupant sensor is designed so that the front passenger seat belt pretensioner fires only if the airbag is deployed. Mrs. Hopkins had none of the advanced safety features needed to adequately protect her in that crash, even though she was belted, and weighed 55 pounds more than the regulated cut-off for smart airbag deployment. Her husband, Tom, walked away from the crash; Donna Hopkins died.

Attorney Stephen Van Gaasbeck, who represented the Hopkins family, says that his research revealed many airbag non-deployment complaints for the Accent and its model twins. In fact, in May 2008, then-Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) wrote to NHTSA on behalf of a constituent who complained about his 2006 Kia Rio. Kia is a Hyundai owned company. In his letter to Dole, the Mint Hill, NC owner wrote:

SRS Requests GM Brand Cars and asks NHTSA to Change NCAP Designations for Vehicles with Deleted "Standard" Side Airbags

Safety Research & Strategies continuing investigation into the "fleet delete" option that allowed GM fleet buyers to purchase vehicles without "standard" side curtain airbags reveals that bagless cars are still being sold to the public as having the feature. (SRS Investigation)