Preventable Ford Airbag Death Touches off Latest Recalls

Another day, another episode of the long-running soap opera, All My Airbags. Last week, on the heels of the tenth death and the eve of an historic blizzard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that another five million vehicles with defective Takata airbag inflators will be recalled. This recall will include driver’s side SDI-type airbag inflators in Ford vehicles.

We are now moving into the eighth year of recalls for a defect that first asserted itself to the Japanese supplier and its OEM customers in 2003. If you have become lost in the maze of inflator acronyms, Congressional hearings, rolling recalls and a Chinese menu of 13 root cause explanations, The Safety Record will draw you a map.

Takata combined a chemically volatile propellant with crappy manufacturing processes and little quality control to build a slow-release IED. Takata made many versions of its inflators, single stage, dual-stage, and side inflators, each with its own acronym and recall variations.  But they all have enough commonalities to be dangerous.

NHTSA, Safety-Crisis-Enabler-In-Chief, first investigated the problem in 2009, with a Recall Query probing Honda’s decision to radically expand its first, limited recall. But, the agency took Takata’s first explanation, and probed no further, despite Honda’s decision to launch second, third, and fourth Takata airbag recalls. It only took five more years before NHTSA officially declared itself unsatisfied with Takata’s root cause analyses. In 2014, the agency opened a Preliminary Evaluation and eventually began conducting its own tests. Meanwhile, the cancer has spread to 14 manufacturers and affected about 24 million vehicles, a number that is about to rise. In 2015, NHTSA decided this fiasco was too big to let the OEMs handle individually, and took over the whole show.

And that brings us to today. Despite the mind-numbing volume of replacement campaigns and an unprecedented regulatory intervention, the death of Joel Knight, a 52-year-old South Carolina man, demonstrated that all of the defective airbag inflators have not been added to the recall roster (let alone actually replaced) – yet. Knight died on December 22, at the wheel of a 2006 Ford Ranger, when he struck a cow in the roadway. The minor crash deployed the airbag, which ruptured with such force that a large metal shard severed his spinal cord. Knight should have walked away from that crash with nothing more than a story to tell at Christmas dinner.

The driver’s side airbag in Knight’s 2006 Ford Ranger was an SDI – a single-stage Smokeless Driver Inflator. This iteration had already ruptured with deadly force on July 27, 2014, killing a pregnant woman in Malaysia in her 2003 Honda City vehicle. That event caused Honda, and then Toyota, to recall in November 2014 more than 200,000 vehicles with SDI inflators in at least 61 countries.  Ford was the only OEM in the U.S. that had SDI inflators in a limited number of vehicles that included the 2004-2006 MY Rangers. But Ford did not join Honda and Toyota in recalling all of its SDI-inflator equipped vehicles, and the record shows an OEM with a distinct lack of urgency.

June 2014 – Ford launched a voluntary parts collection at NHTSA’s behest for inflator inspections and testing in four high humidity areas. Only four models – the 2004 Ranger (passenger-only); 2005-2007 Mustang (driver only); and 2005-2006 GT (passenger and driver) – originally sold in four locations – Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — were included.

November 2014 – Again at NHTSA’s request, Ford added the SDI driver’s side inflators in 2004-2005 Rangers made in certain date ranges and originally sold in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

December 2014 – Ford expanded its campaign for passenger inflators to include vehicles in Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia. They also launched a national recall for the PSDI-4 driver’s side inflators for the GT and Mustang vehicles which share some components with the SDI.

May 2015 – Ford expanded the Mustang driver recall to 2005-2014 model years, because Takata said all PSDI-4 inflators with batwing shaped propellant wafers could be dangerous.

June 2015 – Ford expanded its regional recall of 2004-2006 Ranger passenger inflators into a nationwide recall.

The sharp-eyed reader will notice: Ford never recalled the 2004-2005 MY Ranger with the SDI inflator – the same inflator type that ruptured in July 2014 with fatal consequences in Malaysia – beyond Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The 2006 Ford Ranger with the same SDI inflator was never recalled at all.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, consider this: Honda and Toyota told NHTSA in November 2014 that the root cause of SDI inflator ruptures was Takata’s failure to control the propellant’s exposure to moisture during the manufacturing process. In fact in 2013, five manufacturers – including Toyota and Honda – named moisture exposure during manufacture as a root cause in  passenger inflator recalls. Meanwhile NHTSA, and Ford in numerous recall submissions and amendments, linked the problem to high absolute humidity in certain regions, and a scenario in which the defect presents itself after years of exposure to humidity that degrades the propellant, making it more vulnerable to over-pressurization when ignited.  

On the one hand, you’re saying: Why didn’t Ford recall all of its vehicles with these inflators? It wasn’t that many. On the other hand, Ford’s saying: Why bother? It’s not that many vehicles. What are the odds? Unfortunately, Joel Knight found out.

Many want to claim that the Takata crises was precipitated by a rogue supplier that hid information and altered data on its product problem. But this scenario, which now has become the largest recall in history, could not have unfolded for more than a decade without the OEMs enabling it and without a federal agency failing to question and investigate the many red flags set by years of rolling recalls and shifting explanations.