NHTSA Finally Gets Curious about Exploding Airbags

NHTSA-watchers know that it sometimes takes a lot to pique the curiosity of the Office of Defects Investigations.

Take Takata airbags that explode, shooting shrapnel at hapless drivers. This defect, first surfaced in 2008, when Honda announced a major recall. It has returned to the news pages in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013 as Honda and four other automakers announced a cascade of recalls, each with its own specific defect root cause – one just a little different from the other. These explosions have caused two deaths and at least 22 injuries to date.

This month, NHTSA decided it was time to untangle the mess. Last Wednesday, based on six new complaints since the August 2013 recalls, NHTSA opened a Preliminary Evaluation into potentially defective airbags affecting 1.09 million Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Chrysler vehicles.

According to the Opening Resume, the good folks at ODI discussed these incidents with Takata and decided that heat and humidity might be a factor since all six incidents occurred in Florida or Puerto Rico. Two reports came from Takata and one from Toyota. The remaining three came to the agency’s attention via the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire. The Opening Resume characterizes them as “minor in nature.”

Here are the VOQ narratives:

Right after the car was hit, the passenger airbag exploded, breaking the front windshield and hitting the driver in the head causing a cut of 7 stitches and catching on fire. Airbag never inflated. (VOQ 10568848)

Oncoming driver crossed center line making a left turn in front of Honda driver. Honda struck passenger side of turning vehicle. Both driver and passenger side airbags deployed. However, the diver side airbag inflator ruptured and propelled a one-inch piece of shrapnel into the driver's right eye. Loss of sight and severe lacerations to nose requiring 100 stitches. This vehicle is not included in NHTSA recall campaigns 08V593, 09V259 or 11V260. The Honda was bought used. Information supplied by legal counsel for injured Honda driver. (VOQ 10537899)

There was a loud explosion and the next thing I remember I was sitting in my car staring at the center of my steering console. The airbag was nowhere to be seen. The airbag has completely dislodged from the steering column. After searching for it I found it between the driver’s door and the seat. It has caused cuts and burns on both of my arms as well as the left side of my face. The EMTs told me I was lucky I had large glasses on as they probably kept me from getting hit in the eye. I also am suffering from hearing problems since the explosion of the airbag. My right ear has partial hearing with moderate ringing and pain, my left ear sounds like I'm sitting in a field of crickets. It makes horrible cracking and shrill whistling sounds. I am going to see my ear doctor tomorrow. The rest of me is sore but ok. (VOQ 10585224 )


Apparently, metal shards ripping your face to shreds and taking out an eye is “minor.” Hey, you’ve got two eyes.  

In May 2009, 18-year-old Ashley Nicole Parham.of Oklahoma died in a 2001 Honda Accord, after her vehicle another car in the school parking lot, tripping an explosion that sent a piece of metal right into her carotid artery. In 2010, Kristy Williams, a Georgia college student, was stopped at a light, when her airbags deployed, expelling metal shards, which severed her neck and carotid artery and required two weeks in intensive care. Williams’ case against Honda was settled for an undisclosed sum. On Christmas Eve, Guddi Rathore was at the wheel of her 2001 Honda Accord, when a U.S. postal service truck pulled out in front of her. The minor fender bender caused the airbag to explode. The metal shards severed the arteries in her neck, killing Rathore in front of her three young children, also occupants in the Accord. According to news reports, the Rathore family settled with Honda and the U.S. government earlier this year for $3.5 million.

For its part, The Safety Record is curious why ODI has waited a year to follow up on the high heat and humidity angle. In Honda’s 2013 Defect and Noncompliance notice, it mentioned an inflator rupture involving a vehicle from Puerto Rico, and “another potential concern related to airbag inflator production that could affect the performance of these airbags.” We hope the PE does not simply focus on this new aspect of a 13-year-old problem.

And while we’re at it: Paging Mr. Vincent! Paging Mr. Vincent! (That is O. Kevin Vincent, NHTSA’s Chief Counsel.) Several injury incidents and at least one death occurred in vehicles outside of the recalls.  The Parnham case settled; the Rathore case settled; several other cases settled. In the latest batch of blow-ups, one of those plaintiff’s attorneys you invited to help ODI fight automotive defect crimes reported another case that should send up one the those “red flags” that the TREAD Act “demands” a follow-up. Will you look into those settlements? Did they settle for more-than-an-ambulance-chasing-nuisance amount? Will we see a Timeliness Query for Takata or Honda? Will you follow up, Mr. Vincent? Or will we, like the poor driver in VOQ, only hear crickets?  (See NHTSA Message to the Defense: Call us Before We Call You) 

NHTSA gave Takata and Honda the benefit of the doubt in 2009, when it closed a Recall Query, concluding that their many shifting explanations were adequate to forestall a civil penalty. But that was five years ago. The Safety Record sees in the publicly available documents the typical shuck and jive from automakers in a rolling recall. One thing is abundantly clear: Takata had lousy manufacturing and quality control processes. In 2006, its Monclova, Mexico propellant plant exploded. The airbag inflators keep exploding, the metal continues to fly, and the only ones paying the real penalty are the death and injury victims.  But in this new world of defect scrutiny, might we see more recalls covering even later models than previously disclosed?