Takata Airbag Flaw Linked to 10th Death; five Million More Vehicles Recalled

The Fresh York Times

January 22, 2016

Federal safety regulators on Friday said that a man had died in late December when an airbag made by Takata exploded in the vehicle he was driving.

It was the 10th death linked to what has become one of the country’s thickest consumer safety problems.

In announcing the death, regulators also significantly expanded the recall of cars containing Takata airbags, adding five million to the nineteen million already under recall and extending it to two manufacturers, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, that had not previously been affected.

The twin announcements are the latest evidence that, more than a decade after the very first known rupture of a Takata airbag, automakers and regulators are still fighting to understand the scope of the problem.

Millions of cars remain unfixed, yet are still on the road. Over all, 27.Three percent of recalled driver’s-side airbags have been substituted and 25.8 percent of passenger-side bags, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those numbers are higher in regions with high humidity, which are seen as being a higher risk.

Rosemary Shahan, the founder of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, said that regulators needed to be more forthcoming with which other cars might be at risk and that automakers needed to be more aggressive in fixing the cars.

“The people who are driving in those cars deserve to know,” Ms. Shahan said.

Albeit the root cause of the defect is still unknown, regulators have focused on the airbags’ propellant, which contains ammonium nitrate, a compound that violates down over time or when it is exposed to moisture. When that happens, the ammonium nitrate can combust violently, causing the propellant’s metal casing, called an inflater, to overpressurize and rupture.

Regulators have said that Takata must prove that ammonium nitrate, which is more commonly used in large-scale applications like mining, is safe to use or it will order all airbags containing that compound to be recalled. Takata, the only major airbag manufacturer to use the ammonium nitrate propellant, has said it is safe when decently treated with a stabilizing compound.

But for now, there is no blanket recall, which Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for N.H.T.S.A. said could eventually affect “tens of millions” of extra vehicles.

“Many millions of these vehicles are relatively fresh,” Mr. Trowbridge said, “and given what we know about the role of age in degrading the ammonium nitrate propellant, are unlikely to present a rupture risk for some years.”

Mr. Trowbridge noted that the agency had prioritized the recalls — which will take years to finish — to account for models and geographic regions that pose a higher risk.

“If N.H.T.S.A. believes a vehicle presents an unreasonable risk to safety, the agency would seek a recall,” he said.

The latest death occurred when the airbag in a two thousand six Ford Ranger pickup driven by a Georgia man ruptured violently in South Carolina, Mr. Trowbridge said.

It is the very first to occur in a vehicle made by an automaker other than Honda Motor, underscoring the defect’s growing reach, and is the ninth fatality in the United States.

Timeline | How the Takata Scandal Unfolded Takata provided both regulators and customers with selective, incomplete or inaccurate data dating back to at least 2009, according to regulators.

The latest recalls affect Audi, Volkswagen, Daimler, Ford Motor, Mazda, Saab, BMW, Honda and Mercedes-Benz, tho’ Mr. Trowbridge said that list could be updated. A breakdown of how many vehicles were affected from each automaker was not available.

With the addition of Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, the roster of major automakers affected by the Takata recalls has grown to 14.

A spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz, Donna Boland, confirmed that the universe of Takata recalls now included its models. “That said, we are not aware of any incidents in our vehicles,” she said, adding that the automaker would work with regulators.

Volkswagen, which is also embroiled in a scandal over its cheating of emissions testing, confirmed that it had been notified about Takata’s recall filing and that it would cooperate with regulators. It said it was unaware of incidents or injuries caused by these inflaters in its vehicles.

Federal safety regulators had previously asked Volkswagen to provide information about the rupture of a Takata-made side airbag in a two thousand fifteen model year Tiguan. However, no Volkswagen vehicles, including the two thousand fifteen Tiguan, have been recalled for a Takata airbag-related defect.

The recall of one million out of the five million cars affected was embarked by the two thousand fourteen rupture of a driver’s airbag in a Honda City, a subcompact made for the Asian and European markets. The rupture sprayed metal shards into the neck of the driver, who was pregnant. She died, along with her unborn baby. It is the only known fatality outside the United States.

After the incident, American safety regulators asked Ford to conduct a recall of some Ford Ranger pickups, which use a similar type of airbag inflater, and test their inflaters for defects. Of 1,900 inflaters tested, none showcased signs of abnormalities, Mr. Trowbridge said.

Interactive Feature | Related Takata Airbag Coverage

But last month’s death prompted regulators to call for a recall of more Ford Rangers and other models that used similar inflaters, Mr. Trowbridge said.

Four million more cars are being recalled because of results of testing conducted by Takata and Toyota on inflaters retrieved from cars under recall, he said. Last week, the two companies alerted the safety agency that three of the inflaters tested — all from RAV-4 sport utility vehicles — had ruptured. The agency called for a recall of models that use similar inflaters, he said.

Mr. Trowbridge acknowledged that identifying which models needed to be recalled was, to a certain extent, guesswork. Complicating the recalls is the lack of a clearly understood cause of the airbag explosions.

“Until there is a definitive root cause, there is absolutely going to be uncertainty involved,” Mr. Trowbridge said.

Both Ford and Takata released statements voicing the company’s condolences to the latest victim’s family.

“We are saddened to hear about the driver’s death and suggest our genuine condolences to the family of the driver,” said a Ford spokesman, John Cangany. “We are working with the agency to review the available information, but we have very limited information at this point.”

A Takata spokesman, Jamie Tully, said the company was “cooperating fully with regulators and our automotive customers and proceed to support all deeds that advance vehicle safety.”

Still, Friday’s announcements left Ms. Shahan worried over what is still to come.

“It looks pretty unavoidable that all of these airbags with ammonium nitrate may be recalled,” Ms. Shahan said. “You don’t want to wait until there is a death and then figure it out. That’s what we are all attempting to prevent.”

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