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Air bags have saved countless lives, but they have a deadly track record too

The North American headquarters of automotive parts supplier Takata Corp. is seen in Auburn Hills, Mich. Air bag inflators made by Takata have been tied to 10 deaths in the U.S.
(Associated Press)

Driving a 2002 Honda Civic, Huma Hanif was traveling on a highway outside Houston on March 31 when the high school student ran into a car in front of her.

Hanif’s car was equipped with an air bag made by Japanese supplier Takata Corp. The air bag ruptured with the collision, sending a metal shard into her neck, and the 17-year-old died at the scene, authorities said.

It was the 10th fatality in the United States linked to Takata’s defective air bags, expanding what already has become one of the worst scandals in U.S. consumer-safety history. More than 100 injuries also are linked to the air bags.

Five weeks after Hanif’s death, federal safety regulators expanded a nationwide recall of Takata’s air bags to an astonishing 69 million air bag inflators in vehicles made by more than 14 automakers, the largest recall in U.S. automotive history. The recall is so massive it will take until nearly 2020 to fix all of the faulty air bags, meaning potentially lethal cars remain on the road.

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The scandal has slowly but steadily spread in the past decade with Takata, the automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration all struggling to come to grips with the extent, and the cause, of the problem.

(Raoul Rañoa)

The Takata scandal also added to the troubled history of automotive air bags, which became widespread standard equipment in the 1990s and have saved thousands of lives. Many cars now have multiple air bags inside.

“Are air bags worth it? The answer is yes,” said Rosemary Shahan, founder of the advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

But the safety innovation has come with a price. In the 1990s, for instance, more than 200 people — the majority of them children — died in accidents in which an air bag deployed with fatal force.

That crisis eased with a public-awareness campaign urging that young children sit in the rear seat, along with advances in air bag, automotive and child car-seat technology.

Problems also have surfaced during the manufacturing process. There were more than 18 explosions or fires in factories that made air bag components between 1988 and 1997, Newsday reported in 1997. And in 2006, a Takata plant in Mexico blew up.

Then the safety of the air bags themselves was called into question again in 2009, when an Oklahoma teenager was killed after the Takata air bag ruptured in her 2001 Honda Accord. That was the first of the 10 fatal U.S. accidents linked to the Takata product.

Last November, the NHTSA levied a $70-million fine against Takata — which could grow to $200 million if the supplier fails to meet certain requirements — and accelerated the recall campaign. The safety administration accused Takata of “delay and denial” in acknowledging the defective air bags.

“In hindsight, it looks so stupid. How could this happen?” said Christopher Tang, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and a consumer-safety expert.

“This is a problem with business ethics,” Tang said. Takata “realized there was a problem, and they covered it up,” he said.

When the NHTSA expanded the recall early this month, it said “the science clearly shows” the root cause of the problem was the device that inflates the air bag in milliseconds after impact.

Time, humidity and “fluctuating high temperatures” cause a propellant chemical inside the inflators — ammonium nitrate — to degrade, the agency said. When that happens, the propellant burns too fast, ruptures the inflator’s casing and sends shrapnel flying through the bag and into passengers.

So the agency is doing the recall in phases, depending on the cars’ exposure to those causes. The recall will last through 2019.

In the recall, automakers are using replacements with inflators from other suppliers that don’t contain ammonium nitrate, along with Takata replacements. About two-thirds of Takata’s replacement inflators also come from other suppliers, and those Takata makes itself now have a drying agent to offset the dangerous effects of the ammonium nitrate.

Asked to comment, Takata reiterated its statement issued early this month when the NHTSA expanded the recall, in which Takata said it was “committed to supporting all actions that advance vehicle safety.”

Yet fixing the Takata air bag mess has become a responsibility shared by many: Takata, other air bag suppliers, the automakers, car dealers and the public. Data show that only 8.2 million air bags had been repaired as of April 22.

“This issue is urgent,” NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind said during a news conference about the expanded recall. “Vehicle owners who have received notice that there are parts available for their repair should take action immediately.”

Besides waiting for a recall notice, consumers can see whether their vehicle is part of the recall by entering their vehicle identification number (VIN) at the website www.safercar.gov.

But Matt DeLorenzo, a managing editor at Kelley Blue Book’s website, KBB.com, said motorists often are slow to get their cars in for recall repairs. “If [drivers] don’t take care of it, they in part bear some of the responsibility,” he said. “This is a life-threatening situation.”

Shahan argued that the suppliers, automakers and dealers “need to step up their game, and there’s a lot more they could be doing to make it easier to get them fixed.”

Shahan, who said her 2007 Subaru Outback is among the Takata-equipped cars being recalled, suggested dealers provide evening and weekend hours to repair the air bags, or send mechanics to drivers’ homes or places of work to fix the recalled cars.

Most of the cars involved in the fatal accidents were older Honda vehicles. Takata was Honda’s primary air bag supplier and, because the air bag inflators degraded with age, the older models were susceptible.

Honda pointed to a statement made last month by one of its senior vice presidents, Bruce Smith, who said the automaker was “making a broad-ranging and urgent effort” to reach motorists affected by the recall.

“Honda will continue to take action to gain the attention of owners driving the affected vehicles, and we urge them to make required repairs as soon as possible,” Smith said.

DeLorenzo said that in looking at the air bag’s history, it was important to note that the Takata scandal involved “one flawed supplier” as opposed to the concerns about air bags overall in the 1990s.

“We have gotten to a place where, for the most part, air bag technology is accepted” by consumers, DeLorenzo said.

Still, he said the Takata scandal “undermines consumer confidence in the technology, and that’s another serious side effect.”

james.peltz@latimes.com

For more business news, follow James Peltz on Twitter: @PeltzLATimes


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