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With recall, car owners and mechanics scramble for new air bags

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration starts process to coordinate and accelerate air bag recall

As federal regulators moved to speed up what has become the largest automobile recall in U.S. history, the nation's car dealerships, car owners and mechanics scrambled to cope with a sudden need for new air bags.

Seeking to prevent further deaths from defective Takata Corp. air bags that can explode and spray shrapnel into drivers and passengers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started the legal process Thursday to coordinate and accelerate the massive recall and needed repairs.

It may take years for all of the air bags to be replaced, industry experts said.

The daunting size and scope of the recall, which doubled this week to nearly 34 million vehicles from 11 automakers, has created "an unprecedented level of complexity" to the recall and repair process, the safety agency said. At least six people have been killed by the air bags, and dozens more have been injured.

In Southern California, dealerships have received a flurry of phone calls and other inquiries from anxious customers. Many dealers are already ordering replacement parts and scheduling appointments for repairs.

"I think the major issue is confusion — confusion on the part of dealers, confusion on the part of consumers," said Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Assn. It is the nation's largest state dealer trade association, with more than 1,100 members.

"Unfortunately," he said, "it looks like there's more unanswered questions than answered questions now."

Maas said there could be tens of thousands of cars affected by the recall in Southern California alone — and that number, he added, is a conservative estimate.

"To some extent, depending on the dealership, it's turned it upside down," he said of the recall. "You have a normal flow of business and consumers, and then you've said tens of millions of cars nationwide ... are all going to the service department and be looked at."

Some dealerships have yet to see an onslaught of calls.

Tim Smith, owner of Bob Smith BMW in Calabasas, said a few customers have called inquiring about the recall but ended up not being affected. He said the dealership hasn't yet fixed any affected cars.

"Now, there are just so many recalls," Smith said. "Any single recall doesn't create as much of a stir as it used to."

At AutoNation's California stores, there has been an increased number of calls — though "not a stampede by any means," said Marc Cannon, chief marketing officer for AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the U.S. It has 30 stores in Southern California stretching from Ontario to San Diego.

Cannon said the firm's dealerships have ample repair parts at the moment. But they are encouraging customers to make an appointment to ensure the parts are available, he said. The repair takes about 45 minutes to two hours.

In the meantime, consumer groups and automotive industry experts said drivers shouldn't panic.

"We're probably in more danger every day just driving around than we would be because of one problem with air bags in a certain group of cars," said Carroll Lachnit, a consumer advice editor at Edmunds. "It's a huge news event, but it's very individual when it comes down to what vehicles are affected."

Drivers concerned about the recall should enter their vehicle registration number, or VIN, at safercar.gov/vin or at the manufacturer's website to see if they are affected. Checking the VIN number on safercar.gov is especially important for used-car owners since the recall notice from the manufacturer may not get to them, said Mark Rechtin, autos editor for Consumer Reports.

Owners should then contact their local dealers to let them know they are part of the recall and see if replacement parts are available. Certain manufacturers, such as Honda, may also provide affected drivers with loaner cars.

NHTSA does not recommend that drivers disable their own air bags.

The abundance of information has been confusing for drivers such as Irene Palma.

The 43-year-old Long Beach resident checked her VIN in March and found that both the driver- and passenger-side air bags in her 2004 Honda Accord are part of the recall.

Though she tried to make an appointment at her local dealership, she was not able to secure a time and date until June. When the news of Tuesday's expanded recall broke, she called another dealer, who said the part would be available in a month.

"You're driving around, and you don't know if your vehicle is safe or not," she said. "The information has always been like, the manufacturer says it's not a big deal, but then you read these stories. When you read the explanation of what could happen ... does that sound safe?"

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

andrew.khouri@latimes.com

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