U.S. auto safety agency pushes for nationwide airbag recall

by Michael Cochrane
Posted 12/01/14, 11:20 am

U.S. auto safety regulators have taken the first step in a legal process to compel a nationwide recall of millions of vehicles with potentially defective airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent a letter late last month to the Washington, D.C., office of Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata Corp., giving the company until tomorrow to officially admit a defect in its airbags and expand a current recall that affects only high-humidity regions.

Takata-manufactured airbags have been blamed for at least five deaths and multiple injuries worldwide. Those injuries and deaths are attributed to defective inflator and propellant devices, which can cause the airbag to deploy with too much force, shooting metal fragments into vehicle occupants.

According to a report by Car and Driver, only six makes of automobiles were involved when Takata announced the airbag problems in April 2013 (see a list of affected vehicles at the end of the story). But a Toyota recall in June of this year “along with new admissions from Takata that it had little clue as to which cars used its defective inflators, or even what the root cause was,” prompted other automakers to issue similar recalls.

Because Takata maintained prolonged exposure to moisture might cause the airbag propellants to burn too quickly, the NHTSA took steps in July to force auto manufacturers to expand their self-initiated recalls to high-humidity regions, including the Gulf Coast states, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and some U.S. territories. But in mid-November the NHTSA began pressing for a nationwide recall after an airbag failure in a 2007 Ford Mustang in North Carolina—a state not part of the original “high-humidity” regions.

About 8 million vehicles from 10 manufacturers have been recalled so far in the United States, and 14 million worldwide. But the problem of defective airbags began to appear much earlier than last year. The New York Times reported in September that both Takata and Honda allegedly have known about the faulty inflators since 2004 but either delayed or failed to notify the NHTSA. 

“In each of the incidents, Honda settled confidential financial claims with people injured by the air bags,” the Times reported. “But the automaker 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.”

To initiate a national recall of affected vehicles, the NHTSA must officially determine a safety defect exists. This requirement would be met if Takata acknowledges the defective airbags. If Takata fails to comply with the NHTSA request by tomorrow, the agency could take the company to court, hold public hearings, and even levy civil penalties as high as $7,000 per defective vehicle.

“Be assured that we will use all of our authority and resources,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

Cars affected by the Takata airbag recall

Acura: 2002–2003 CL, TL; 2003–2006 MDX; 2005 RL

BMW: 2000–2005 3-series sedan and wagon; 2000–2006 3-series coupe and convertible; 2001–2006 M3 coupe and convertible

Chrysler: 2005–2008 Chrysler 300; 2007–2008 Aspen

Dodge/Ram: 2003–2008 Dodge Ram 1500; 2005–2008 Ram 2500, Dakota, and Durango; 2006–2008 Ram 3500 and 4500; 2008 Ram 5500

Ford: 2004 Ranger; 2005–2006 GT; 2005–2007 Mustang

Honda: 2001–2007 Accord; 2001–2005 Civic; 2002–2006 CR-V; 2002–2004 Odyssey; 2003–2011 Element; 2003–2007 Pilot; 2006 Ridgeline

Infiniti: 2001–2004 Infiniti I30/I35; 2002–2003 Infiniti QX4; 2003–2005 Infiniti FX35/FX45; 2006 Infiniti M35/M45

Lexus: 2002–2005 SC430

Mazda: 2003–2007 Mazda 6; 2006–2007 Mazdaspeed 6; 2004–2008 Mazda RX-8; 2004–2005 MPV; 2004 B-series

Mitsubishi: 2004–2005 Lancer; 2006–2007 Raider

Nissan: 2001–2003 Maxima; 2001–2004 Pathfinder; 2002–2006 Nissan Sentra

Pontiac: 2003–2005 Vibe

Saab: 2005 9-2X

Subaru: 2003–2005 Baja, Legacy, Outback; 2004–2005 Impreza, Impreza WRX, Impreza WRX STI

Toyota: 2002–2005 Corolla, Sequoia; 2003–2005 Matrix, Tundra

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

Read more from this writer