When the Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata announced the recall of more than 30 million airbags in 2015, it was the largest recall in American history — and now it just got even bigger. This week, Takata announced it was recalling another 35 to 40 million.
The defective airbags, which may be inside roughly one-quarter of all vehicles on U.S. roads, have killed 11 people and injured about 100 after explosive chemicals that propel the airbags sent metal shrapnel out of the steering wheels and straight at the drivers. Two of those deaths were in the Houston area, most recently March 31.
In that incident, Huma Hanif, a 17-year-old college-bound senior, got in a minor car accident that, according to a lawsuit the girl's family recently filed, investigators said she should have walked away from. But instead, when her airbag deployed, it shot a piece of metal shrapnel straight into her neck, severing vital arteries. Hanif bled to death outside her Honda Accord on the side of the road. That led her family to file a lawsuit against Takata, American Honda and even inspectors who worked on her car, who didn't catch that its airbag was essentially a bomb just waiting to detonate.
As the family's attorney, Mo Aziz, said in a press conference last week, “Nobody deserves to be killed by a safety device.”
The explosive chemical that Takata has used to manufacture some 70 million airbags is the same chemical that blew up at the West, Texas, plant in 2013: ammonium nitrate. In Takata's airbags, the chemical is encased by metal, but it's still extremely sensitive to temperature and moisture changes — meaning the airbags are even more dangerous in hotter climates like Houston's. After the chemical goes through many “thermal cycles,” causing it to break down, it becomes susceptible to combusting rapidly and exploding upon impact, generally in temperatures higher than 90 degrees.
As we reported last May following another airbag fatality, even as the death toll began to climb, Takata had been resisting cooperation with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for months, leading the agency to begin charging the company $14,000 a day until the bill climbed to $1.2 million. That's when Takata expanded its recall the first time, and from the looks of it, officials haven't let the company off the hook since then. One Center for Auto Safety official even told USA Today that this may not even be the end of it and that the recall may continue to grow — by tens of millions.
As USA Today reported, Takata has agreed with NHTSA to begin repairing the millions of airbags immediately, finishing by December 2019; it also agreed to pay $70 million in penalties and up to $200 million for failing to fix the airbags sooner, and for not reporting the problem.
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Takata's CEO, Shigehisa Takada, said in a statement:
“This agreement with NHTSA is consistent with our desire to work with regulators and our automaker customers to develop long-term, orderly solutions to these important safety issues.”
In the first Houston fatality we reported on last year, the consequence of that safety issue was shrapnel shooting into the person's neck “with an explosive force severe enough to lodge the metal into his cervical spine and shoulder.”
Find out if your car may be affected here.