Air bag recalls have risen exponentially in the last year due to increased oversight by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 10 million of the 30 million vehicles recalled in 2014 have been as a result of air bag defects which cause the inflator canister to explode inside vehicles, leading to metal shards flying around inside the passenger compartment.
The defective air bags were manufactured by the Takata Corporation, who began manufacturing air bags in 1988. Takata is one of the three largest worldwide air bags producers, along with the Swedish company Autoliv, and an American supplier TRW Automotive. Seven automobile manufacturers have announced recalls of vehicles containing the Takata air bags, including Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, Chrysler and BMW. Honda acknowledged that it was aware of in excess of 30 injuries and two fatalities from defective air bags manufactured by Takata. Despite the fact that Takata had a questionable safety record, with defective seatbelts manufactured by the company leading to 9 million recalls in the 1990’s, automakers have continued to retain Takata for production of air bags.
One devastating example is that of Kristy Williams. In 2010, while waiting at a red light in Georgia, the Takata air bags in her 2001 Honda Civic spontaneously deployed. Ms. Williams was struck by metal shards from the canister that contained the air bag propellant. The sharp shards went through the air bag fabric and punctured her neck and carotid artery. She underwent numerous operations and had several seizures and strokes. Honda and Takata worked out a settlement with Ms. Williams attorneys, with the usual non-disclosed financial terms. There have also been two deaths reported from the defective air bags in Oklahoma and Virginia. Both of these fatal accidents occurred in 2009 and involved Honda vehicles. The cases were settled by Honda and Takata with undisclosed terms.
Takata believes that the defective air bags are due to excessive moisture and humidity seeping inside the inflators, which then destabilizes the propellant inside the air bag. The NHTSA has received 6 reports of air bag inflator ruptures which all occurred in Florida and Puerto Rico, which would be consistent with the theory that moisture and humidity plays a strong part in these incidents. The Administration noted in a statement that it “supports efforts by automakers to address the immediate risk in areas that have consistently hot, humid conditions over extended periods of time.” If the driver’s side air bag explodes, the metal shards are likely to strike the driver, as they did to Ms. Williams in 2010. However, because of its placement in the glove compartment, an exploding air bag on the passenger side will likely send the shards toward the roof of the car, and not toward the passenger.
Honda recently recalled approximately 2 million vehicles with the Takata air bags, Toyota recalled 2.3 million cars, Nissan recalled 755,000 cars, and Mazda recalled 160,000 vehicles.