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Takata Airbag Recalls: Too Little Too Late From Takata and Honda

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At least three deaths have been associated with defective Takata airbags.  Takata, a Japanese manufacturer, is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of air bags.  More than 16 million vehicles from 11 automobile makers that contain Takata airbags have been recalled worldwide.   That is about five times the number of vehicles recalled this year by General Motors for its deadly ignition switch defect.  The problematic air bags were developed by Takata in the late 1990s in an effort to make air bags more compact and to reduce the toxic fumes that early air bags often emitted when deployed. The redesigned air bags are inflated by means of an explosive based on a common compound used in fertilizer. That explosive is encased in a metal canister. Honda, which has a long relationship with Takata, became among the first automakers to use the new air bags. They were placed in some models beginning in 1998, according to media announcements at the time.

A New York Times investigation last month revealed that Takata and Honda failed for years to take decisive action before issuing the recalls.  Ms. Hien Tran looked like she had been stabbed in the neck following a car accident.  Instead of protecting her, the airbag in Ms. Tran’s Honda sent shrapnel flying into her neck.  A week after she died from her neck wound, a letter from Honda arrived in the mail.  The letter urged Ms. Tran to get her Honda Accord fixed because of faulty air bags that could explode.

How long have Takata and Honda known that Takata airbags could explode, sending shrapnel toward the face of the driver?  In 2004 an air bag exploded in a Honda Accord in Alabama, shooting out metal fragments and injuring the car’s driver. At a loss to explain the incident, Honda and Takata, its Japanese air bag supplier, deemed it “an anomaly” and did not issue a recall or seek the involvement of federal safety regulators.  Three deaths and more than 30 injuries have been linked to air bag explosions in Honda vehicles, and complaints received by regulators about various automakers blame Takata air bags for at least 139 injuries, including 37 people who reported air bags that ruptured or spewed shrapnel or chemicals. In one incident in December 2009, a Honda Accord driven by Gurjit Rathore, 33, hit a mail truck in Richmond, Va. Her air bag exploded, propelling shrapnel into her neck and chest, and she bled to death in front of her three children, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.

The New York Times found the inadequate response to the risk of rupturing air bags was rooted in the industry’s ability to report safety problems in a minimal way, a weak regulatory agency and a disconnect between what automakers are aware of internally and what they reveal publicly.

The NY Times reports that the danger of exploding air bags was not disclosed for years after the first reported incident in 2004, despite red flags — including three additional ruptures reported to Honda in 2007, according to interviews, regulatory filings and court records.

In each of the incidents, Honda settled confidential financial claims with people injured by the Takata air bags, but Honda did not issue a safety recall until late 2008, and then for only a small fraction — about 4,200 — of its vehicles eventually found to be equipped with the potentially explosive air bags.

The delays by both Honda and Takata in alerting the public about the defect — and later in Takata’s acknowledging that the safety problem extended beyond a small group of Honda vehicles — meant other automakers like BMW, Toyota and Nissan were not made aware of possible defects in their own vehicles for years, putting off their  own recalls. Only last month, Honda issued yet another recall due to defective airbags — its ninth for the defect — bringing to six million the total of recalled Honda and Acura vehicles.

It was just six months after the first 2008 recall that an air bag in Jennifer Griffin’s Honda Civic, which was not among the recalled vehicles, exploded after a minor accident in Orlando, Fla. The air bag explosion sent a two-inch piece of shrapnel flying into her neck. When highway troopers found Ms. Griffin, then 26, with blood gushing from a gash in her neck, they were baffled by the extent of her injuries. At Honda, engineers soon linked the accident to the previous ruptures.“Honda was aware of the problem,” said Ms. Griffin, who settled a claim against the automaker under terms she was not authorized to disclose. “This should never have happened at all.”

These cases are a perfect example of why secret settlements, particularly in products liability cases, are a dangerous thing.  They allow manufacturers to hide known dangers for decades.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Honda failed to report its defective airbag-related death and injury totals to regulators until December 2011, when it issued a “confidential” report in connection with its FIFTH recall for the airbag rupture defect.

By law, automakers are required to inform federal regulators of a defect within five business days, even if an exact cause cannot be determined. Honda filed a standard report on the initial air bag injury in 2004, and followed up with similar filings on the incidents in 2007. The form requires automakers to list the component — in this case, an air bag — that was responsible for an injury, but it does not allow for elaboration about the circumstances, like a rupture.

In none of those four instances of ruptured air bags, The Times found, did Honda go beyond the standard form and separately alert safety regulators to the most critical detail: that the air bags posed an explosion risk.  Perhaps it is time that our representatives in Congress stop catering to lobbyists for the manufacturers’ associations and start giving some teeth to the federal agencies that were created to protect the citizens.  In this case, stricter reporting standards by auto makers to NHTSA are in order.  Honda should not have been able to get away with such deceptive reporting.

Here is a link to a list of vehicles affected by the Takata air bag recall.

2 Comments

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  1. Nancy Decker says:
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    I have a 2007 Honda accord and have NOT BEEN WARNED OF AIR BAG lack of safety. What should I do?

  2. Rita C. Moreno says:
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    My car is on the list of recalled Honda’s. I have not receive any notification from the automaker or the dealership. I called the dealer and asked when I could take my car to them. The staff that answered was very hostile. She said to take my car to them mid November. When I disagreed and asked that they find me another dealership that could take me in sooner I was told that the message will be passed to see IF someone could call!. Also, that their manager was having a meeting in the morning and was going to be busy…That shows how much they care. I live in a city with an almost non existing commuter transport.