California Joins the Tote Board of Exploding-Takata-Airbag Deaths

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Honda added 1 million California vehicles to a worldwide recall list in July 2014, where they joined 33 million others from 10 car manufacturers that use shrapnel-spewing Takata airbags.

Now California has joined the list of states registering a fatality. It's the eighth death, seven in the U.S. and one in Malaysia. More than 100 injuries have been reported, but there is little doubt that there are, and will be, more.

The problem has existed for more than a decade, but only received attention in the last year. A report released Tuesday by Democrats on the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee said Takata internal documents raised safety questions about the airbags in 2001. By 2007, the company knew of at least three incidents involving the airbags. A very small recall was launched in 2008, but expansion was resisted.

The committee reviewed 13,000 documents, including employee emails, and found a lot of hand-wringing over the safety problems that were not being addressed at the company. They “suggest that Takata may have prioritized profit over safety by halting global safety audits for financial reasons,” the report said. 

The report was released just prior to a Senate hearing on the airbags. Senators did not express a lot of optimism that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was up to the task of protecting people from dangerous vehicles. The NHTSA asked for additional funding to handle the unfolding Takata affair, but was met with accusations of “blatant, incompetent management” from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri). She characterized an audit of NHTSA by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general as “one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”   

Honda says it was made aware of the problem in 2004 and started a limited recall in 2008. The recall did not begin in earnest until the past month, according to the New York Times. Takata makes 20% of all airbags used in vehicles.

Honda acknowledged that a 2001 Honda Civic airbag exploded in a Los Angeles-area crash on September 7, lacerating driver Jewel Brangman's neck and destroying her brain. The car was a rental. The family filed a wrongful death suit against Honda, Takata and Sunset Car Rental in April. The car manufacturer and Takata have both apologized to the family.

Brangman's car was recalled in 2009 but was never repaired. Digital Trends described the problem as being “caused by an unstable ammonium nitrate compound, which when exposed to more humid environments, can inflate the airbags too quickly, exploding a metal canister that is meant to keep the blast in check.”

Because the car was a rental, the owners weren't required by law to fix the car or even tell the renter there was a recall notice for it. Companies are also not required to fix them before resale. Eleven groups petitioned (pdf) the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in June 2014 to require CarMax, the nation's largest used car dealer, to notify people when they are sold a car with an outstanding recall notice.

But that hasn't happened. Federal legislation requiring used car dealers and rental agencies to fix recalled cars hasn't gone anywhere. Most rental companies say they voluntarily fix cars that have been recalled.

The California Assembly passed unanimously passed legislation on June 2 that addresses the problem in a limited fashion. Assembly Bill 287, which helps clarify for the buyer that a vehicle is under recall, would only restrict the sales of recalled used cars that are classified as “Stop Sale-Stop Drive,” around 1% of sales. Dealers see the bill as protection against lawsuits that may arise from selling someone a known deathtrap.

Vehicle manufacturers besides Honda subject to the Takata recall are: Toyota, Ford, General Motors, BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Daimler and Subaru. Multiple years, makes and models are involved. The NHTSA made a database and lookup tool available on June 17 for people who want to see if their car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is on the recall list.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Takata, Safety Regulators Slammed in Hearing over Deadly Air-Bag Defect (by Drew Harwell, Washington Post)

Airbag Death in Honda Rental Car Reveals a Gap (by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times)

Takata to Blame for Yet Another Airbag Fatality, Bringing Total Death Toll to 8 (by Lulu Chang, Digital Trends)

Honda Confirms First California Death from Faulty Takata Air Bag (by Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times)

Takata Knew of Air-Bag Flaws as Early as 2001, U.S. Senator Says (by Alan Levin, Bloomberg)

Honda Expands Recall by Up to 1 Million Cars (by Chris Woodyard, USA Today)

Consumer Groups Want CarMax Investigated; Assembly Wants It Venerated (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Honda Accused of Hiding Death and Injury Claims (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Danger Behind the Wheel: The Takata Airbag Crisis and How to Fix Our Broken Auto Recall Process (U.S. Senate Office of Oversight and Investigations Minority Staff) (pdf)

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