A nationwide recall of defective, shrapnel-shooting airbags may affect more than 7 million vehicles in the U.S. from nearly two dozen brands, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now saying owners of the cars in extremely humid areas like the Gulf Coast are most at risk.
The airbags in question were supplied by Takata, a Japanese manufacturer and supplier of automotive safety parts, and have reportedly been documented as exploding under force, with the inflator parts spraying shrapnel made of tiny bits of plastic and metal at drivers and passengers during a crash. The problem has reportedly caused four deaths and several injuries in the U.S.
This round of recalls is hardly the first for Takata airbags; regional recalls sparked by safety problems due to rust or corrosion limited to cold-weather states where salt is used on the roads date back to 2008, and were approved based on "limited information."
Most of the cars affected by the Takata airbags have been under recall for months or even years, but after a new round of tests, the agency issued a notice last week that specifically targeted a number of more humid areas, including Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana.
Government scrutiny of the response from regulators is ramping up as the recall continues to grow. While initial warnings about the Takata airbag defects published by the NHTSA urged owners to "act immediately," the information incorrectly identified several models as being affected, while somehow excluding others.
Under the corrected information, the number of recalled vehicles grew from 4.7 million to about 7.8 million, which caused mass confusion as to which vehicles were affected. Federal prosecutors are now investigating the Japanese supplier, according to The Wall Street Journal, and lawmakers are seeking more information on NHTSA's investigation into Takata.
The investigation is being conducted by prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office, according to WSJ, and is examining whether Takata made misleading statements about the safety of its airbags to U.S. regulators. The probe is in its preliminary stages, according to the report, and investigators are acting carefully in order to avoid disruption of the recalls.
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When Takata announced the defect in April 2013, only six makes of vehicles were believed to be affected. The initial recall led by Toyota, along with admissions made by the Japanese supplier, led investigators to believe Takata had little clue about the true cause of the defect, or even the number of cars affected by the issue.
Questions over which vehicles were actually affected by the faulty airbags prompted more automakers to issue recalls, and in July, NHTSA forced additional regional recalls in other high-humidity areas in order to gather removed parts, which were then sent to Takata for review.
Results from those tests showed the risk of a rupture in hot, humid climates was "greater than previously identified," which prompted the agency's targeted recall.
A full list of affected vehicles is available at Car and Driver.