Even though in February Takata plead guilty to criminal wire fraud for covering up engineering defects that have led to at least 17 deaths worldwide. Consumers shouldn’t get complacent.
That guilty plea accompanies the biggest recall in automotive history. With it Takata agreed to a $1 billion settlement, including $850 million to compensate automakers for repairs, $125 million for a victim settlement fund, and a $25 million criminal fine. Three Takata executives also have been charged with fraud for their alleged roles in hiding the risks since 2000.The Tokyo-based company admitted to hiding the deadly risks of its air bags for about 15 years and the faulty air bags have been linked to at least 11 deaths and over 100 injuries in the United States alone.
It has been reported that these recalls will eventually affect about 42 million U.S. vehicles with nearly 70 million Takata air bag inflators, making it largest U.S. auto safety campaign ever.
But it will take at bare minimum at least three years for Takata and other manufacturers to make enough air bags to replace the company’s defective ones. At the heart of the recall was the basic fact that, because of their faulty chemistry, Takata’s devices become less stable over time. This leaves millions of cars still on the road, with drivers and passengers riding along with what are now essentially ticking time bombs.
In December 2016 amidst complaints that automakers weren’t acting quickly enough in moving the recall process forward, the Department of Transportation announced a more aggressive recall schedule with priority given to the riskiest models. Three independent investigations led federal safety regulators to the conclusion that long-term exposure to changes in temperature and moisture can make ammonium nitrate propellant in the Takata air bags dangerously powerful. The head of the NHTSA, Mark Rosekind, said, “The science now clearly shows that these inflators can become unsafe over time, and faster when exposed to high humidity and high temperature fluctuations,”
In 2001 Takata switched from using the propellant tetrazole in its airbags to an alternative formula that used ammonium nitrate as the primary ingredient. Widely used for large demolitions in mining and construction, ammonium nitrate was known to be highly sensitive to temperature changes and moisture and to lose stability over time. Despite the known risks, indications are that Takata made the change from tetrazole to the new propellant because ammonium nitrate was cheap and would help the company boost profit margins.
The propellant is used in the airbag inflator, which is composed of a metal cartridge loaded with wafers of ammonium nitrate and a trigger that will detonate and deploy the airbag in the case of impact. The switch to ammonium nitrate introduced a propellant that breaks down over time and becomes violently combustible when exposed to temperature changes and moisture. This increase in combustibility is believed to be violent enough to rupture the inflator housing in a crash and spray shrapnel throughout the cabin – effectively turning a lifesaving device into a deadly hand grenade.
The NHTSA has ordered that all defective air bags must be replaced by 2019. But delays in notifications and miscommunication have left many car owners unaware that they might be part of this critical recall. For this reason it is important that owners who suspect their car may have defective airbags to check if their car is affected. This warning is especially urgent in Florida since it is believed that exposure to high heat and humidity will only accelerate the dangers posed by these defective airbags.
The easiest way to check a car’s airbags is to call a franchised dealer or look to the ownership sections on manufacturers’ websites for recall information. Owners can also use their vehicle identification number, VIN, and enter it into the NHTSA’s online VIN-lookup tool. The NHTSA website also has a list of vehicles affected by the recalls for quick review.
At Saunders & Walker we will continue to monitor the Takata recall and offer representation to anyone suspecting that they, or their relatives, may have been killed or injured by these dangerous airbags