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Takata Airbag

On October 20, 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued an urgent alert to inform the owners of more than 50 models of cars, trucks and minivans from 10 different manufacturers about a recall due to defective Takata airbags.

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In total, the Takata recall affects more than 7.8 million vehicles produced from 2000 – 2011. 1 As of the advisory date, there are at least four deaths and several dozen injuries that have been linked to the defective airbags, which reportedly send plastic and metal shrapnel flying into the faces of drivers and passengers allegedly due to the use of an uncommon inflation technique. 2 According to one report, more than 18 million Takata airbags have been recalled since 2008. 3

Defective Takata Airbags

Upon deployment during a car accident, the volatile chemicals could make the airbag fill too quickly and even burst, causing plastic and metal shrapnel to fly into the face of those the airbags were meant to protect.

Takata first announced problems with its airbags in April 2013, when it stated that 3.6 million vehicles from six different makers may have defective airbags. An additional recall affecting another 844,000 vehicles in the U.S., plus another 650,000 vehicles in Japan, was issued in June 2014. In October 2014, the largest Takata airbag recall yet was announced, affecting potentially as many as 7.8 million vehicles throughout various regions of the U.S. and its territories. 4 5

The recall is related to problems particular to the way that Takata airbags are deployed in the affected vehicles. Specifically, according to documents Takata provided to the NHTSA, the company incorrectly stored its ammonium nitrate – the chemical used to inflate the airbags – in a way that made it unstable due to excessive moisture. Upon deployment during a car accident, the volatile chemicals could make the airbag fill too quickly and even burst, causing plastic and metal shrapnel to fly into the face of those the airbags were meant to protect. Both driver and passenger airbags are affected by the defect.2 6

NHTSA Communications and Actions

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration knew about Takata’s defective airbags well before the most recent airbag recall. In a letter dated June 11, 2014, Mike Rains – a “Government Affairs Specialist” at Takata – provided the NHTSA with additional background and details related to the airbag malfunctions. Rains noted that six incidents potentially related to the exploding airbags occurred in Florida and Puerto Rico, claiming that relatively high levels of humidity in those areas along with “potential processing issues” may have contributed to the events.

In the rest of the letter, Rains makes a case for only issuing “regional [airbag] recalls” in U.S. states and territories where there is high absolute humidity, such as Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, in addition to Florida and Puerto Rico where the aforementioned incidents occurred. He lists seven affected vehicle makes. 7

The most recent safety communication came on October 20, 2014, when the NHTSA issued its consumer advisory calling on the owners of affected vehicles to check their own vehicle against the list of affected vehicles. Because of the extremely dangerous nature of the airbag malfunctions, NHTSA Deputy Director David Friedman pledged to aggressively investigate the issue to make sure all affected vehicles are identified. Within a couple days, the list of makes, models and years in the communication received further updates.1

This is not the first time that Takata has been involved in a major recall of transportation safety equipment. In 1997, the company was required to replace defective seatbelts in almost 8.9 million vehicles. The Takata seatbelt recall was the largest-ever recall of its kind at that time, and the NHTSA publicly expressed its disapproval at the slow rate which the manufacturer was able to accomplish the recall. 8

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Consumer Advisory: Vehicle Owners with Defective Airbags Urged to Take Immediate Action.” (Updated Oct. 22, 2014) NHTSA.gov. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014 

  2. Trudell, Craig, Yuki Hagiwara and Ma Jie. “Air-Bag Maker in Global Crisis Used Unusual Explosive.” (Oct. 27, 2014) Bloomberg. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014. 

  3. Bernstein, Joanna Zuckerman, Ben Klayman, and Yoko Kubota. “Exclusive: Takata engineers struggled to maintain air bag quality, documents reveal.” (Oct. 17, 2014) Reuters. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014. 

  4. Atiyeh, Clifford. “Massive Takata Airbag Recall: Everything You Need to Know, Including Full List of Affected Vehicles.” (Oct. 23, 2014) Car and Driver. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014. 

  5. Atiyeh, Clifford. “Toyota Recalling 844,000 U.S. Cars for Shrapnel-Shooting Airbags.” (June 16, 2014) Car and Driver. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014. 

  6. Kubota, Yoko. “Faulty Takata air bags prompt expanded Toyota recall.” (June 11, 2014) Reuters. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014. 

  7. Rains, Mike. “Re: Takata Support For Regional Actions To Address Potential Inflator Issues.” (June 11, 2014) NHTSA.gov. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014. 

  8. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Replacement of Takata Safety Belts Progressing Too Slowly, NHTSA Says.” March 3, 1997) NHTSA.gov. Accessed Oct. 29, 2014.