It was only supposed to be a minor fender-bender — until 17-year-old Huma Hanif's airbag literally exploded, sending metal shrapnel into Hanif's neck, killing her at the scene.
In March, Hanif became the tenth person in the United States and second person in the Houston area to die as a result of a defective airbag manufactured by Takata, containing the same volatile, explosive chemical that blew up at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant: ammonium nitrate. More than 100 people have been injured. In what has grown to be the largest and most complex recall in American history, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that more than 70 million vehicles on American roads contain these airbags that one Houston City Council member described as “ticking time bombs” — quite literally.
Given that about one in five people are driving cars with explosive devices contained in their steering wheels, NHTSA and the independent monitor of this gigantic Takata recall came to Houston to urge drivers to get defective airbags repaired as soon as possible — all for free. According to NHTSA, Houston has been lagging behind other cities. About 68 percent of defective vehicles, or roughly 275,000 cars on Houston roads, have yet to be fixed — despite the fact that NHTSA says Houston is one of the most at-risk cities in America for these airbag explosions.
According to a lawsuit that Hanif's family filed against Takata in April, here's how the safety devices manage to somehow blow up and seriously hurt or kill people rather than protect them: Even though the ammonium nitrate is encased in metal — the same metal that shot into Hanif's neck — the chemical is highly sensitive to changes in temperature or moisture levels. This is why hotter climates, like Houston's, are highly sensitive to the hazard.
After the ammonium nitrate goes through enough “thermal cycles,” the chemical will break down over several years to the point that, in temperatures generally higher than 90 degrees, it may combust and explode upon impact. Hanif's attorney said in April that the amount of ammonium nitrate in these airbags has about 45 percent of the detonation strength of a hand grenade.
NHTSA says there is a 50-50 chance in certain older vehicles that the airbags will blow up.
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“I can't stress how urgent this really is,” said Georgia Chakiris, regional administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "We deal with addressing reduction of death and injury on the highway every day — unfortunately, thousands of those happen. But when you have deaths as a result of a safety feature in the car, it really strikes home."
The cars that are severely at risk are mostly 2001 or 2002 Honda Accords, which NHTSA calls the “alpha defects,” among others. Both Hanif and a Houston man killed by the defective airbag last year were driving 2002 Honda Accords at the time of their minor accidents, which investigators at the time said the drivers should have walked away from.
Chakiris said drivers shouldn't rely on manufacturers or car dealers to warn them about the defect, since many of the cars most at risk are more than ten years old and dealers may not be able to contact the owners anymore. But finding out whether your car is among the hundreds of thousands affected is pretty simple. You can enter your car's VIN number here and NHTSA will tell you if you need the repair. You can also browse affected car makes and models here.
Houston City Council members said Tuesday that Uber has offered to provide free rides to people who need to get their Takata shrapnel-bomb airbags replaced.