A few years ago, safety regulators began to notice a strange pattern of incidents in which a vehicle's airbag had suddenly exploded, spraying plastic and metal shrapnel through the passenger compartment. Urgent safety investigations around the globe resulted in the largest auto safety recall in U.S. history. The investigators concluded that the explosions were caused by moisture intrusion into the airbags' ammonium nitrate-based inflators. Ammonium nitrate is a volatile chemical used in inflators for airbags manufactured by Takata.
Unfortunately, the potentially explosive air bags were used by a range of automakers, making the problem difficult to pin down and communicate effectively to consumers.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 19 million vehicles were recalled but, as of March 11, only a third had been repaired.
Takata airbags that may explode are or have been installed in passenger cars and trucks by every major manufacturer: BMW, Chrysler/Dodge, Ford, GM (Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn), Honda/Acura, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan/Infiniti, Subaru, Toyota/Lexus and Volkswagen/Audi.
Vehicles still being manufactured with faulty part, safe replacements unavailable
Getting consumers to bring their recalled vehicles in for service -- even critical safety service -- is a real challenge for car manufacturers. Unfortunately in this case, the problem is not lack of consumer compliance but a lack of available replacement parts. In fact, NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind's wife owns one of the vehicles affected but can't get it repaired. She and millions of other responsible drivers are stuck waiting for replacement parts to be manufactured.
Yet new model years of the affected vehicles are still being manufactured and sold. Are automakers prioritizing new vehicles over recalled ones to get the parts quickly?
Unfortunately, no. In February, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson criticized NHTSA for allowing Takata to continue manufacturing and selling ammonium nitrate-based airbags to carmakers. "Auto manufacturers are installing new live grenades into people's cars as replacements for the old live grenades," he told his colleagues in a hearing about whether Takata hid or manipulated data to avoid liability for the injuries and deaths.
In response, a NHTSA spokesperson insisted that "all Takata ammonium nitrate-based inflators must eventually be recalled unless Takata can establish their long-term safety" under the terms of its November 2015 consent order with the company.
The upshot? If your vehicle is equipped with a faulty Takata airbag, it simply may not be possible to drive it safely. NHTSA chief Rosekind admits his wife is fortunate to have access to another car, but they have also been working with their dealership to get a loaner car.
Since carmakers are continuing to install these potentially deadly, defective parts in new vehicles, they may be fortunate in another way -- at least they know about the problem.
We urge you to check your vehicle on recalls.gov's VIN search and to stop driving it immediately until the airbag can be replaced.