Nation & World

Report: Thousands of risky air bags still on the road

Carmakers still trying to locate many owners

Brangman family photo

Jewel Brangman was killed by shrapnel from a Takata air bag in this crash in Los Angeles. She was driving the rear vehicle, a Honda Civic.
Brangman family photo Jewel Brangman was killed by shrapnel from a Takata air bag in this crash in Los Angeles. She was driving the rear vehicle, a Honda Civic.
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Alexander Brangman finds comfort in remembering how long his daughter lived — 26 years, 11 months, 9 hours and 15 minutes — rather than the horrible and needless way she died.

Jewel Brangman, an academic All-American in high school, about to pursue a doctorate at Stanford, had no need to know much about the rental car she drove north toward Los Angeles on a sunny September Sunday almost four years ago.

Then came a relatively minor crash — she rear-ended a minivan — and her air bag exploded with a spray of razor-sharp metal shards that severed her carotid artery.

Ten years after the biggest safety recall in U.S. history began, Honda says there are more than 60,000 vehicles on the nation’s roads equipped with what experts have called a “ticking time bomb” — defective air bags like the one that killed Brangman.

The air bags, which sit about a foot from a driver’s chest, have a 50-50 chance of exploding in a fender bender.

They are the most deadly air bags remaining in the recall involving more than 37 million vehicles built by 19 automakers. At least 22 people worldwide have been killed and hundreds more permanently disfigured when the air bags that deployed to protect them instead exploded and sprayed shrapnel.

The worst among the bad bags are known as Alphas, driver-side air bags installed in Hondas that have up to a 50 percent chance they will explode on impact.

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The 62,307 people still driving with them, many in older-model cars that may have changed hands several times, either have ignored the recall warnings or never received them, Honda said.

With the number of deaths and disfigurements continuing to climb — the last fatality was in January — automakers and federal regulators have rewritten the rule book in their outreach efforts, including deploying teams to knock on doors of Honda owners who have not responded to recall notices.

“We’re good at repairing vehicles,” said Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America. “But finding and convincing customers of older model vehicles to complete recalls, now that has proved a difficult challenge.”

The massive recall of air bag inflaters made by Takata — which allegedly suppressed tests revealing the flaw and where three key executives are under federal indictment — is well known to Congress and millions of Americans who have been touched by it.\But tens of thousands of drivers most at risk remain oblivious to the efforts of automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Our last hearing on the ongoing Takata fiasco is just further evidence that NHTSA is just rudderless,” said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, ranking Democrat on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“The latest data the committee has received from the automakers shows that individual automaker recall completion rates are all over the place — and millions are still waiting for replacement air bags.”

NHTSA has been without an administrator in the 15 months since Donald Trump entered the White House. The president recently proposed elevating acting director Heidi King to lead the agency.

King, whose nomination will require Senate confirmation, told the Commerce Committee last month that car companies have “made progress” on the Takata recall.

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“But the progress is uneven,” she said. “Overall completion rates are not where we want them to be.”

Takata air-bag inflaters degrade over time as they are exposed to humidity and repeated wide fluctuation in the daily temperature. That a car may change hands three or four times during a 10-year period has made the recall more difficult, with notices from the car dealer or automaker discarded by people who sold the vehicle years earlier.

While most Takata inflaters go bad over time when exposed to temperature changes and humidity, the Alpha inflaters experienced high humidity at a Takata factory in Monclova, Mexico, before they were installed.

In a 2015 response to Congress marked “confidential,” Takata acknowledged that the propellant that triggers the air bags had “been left in work stations during a prolonged shutdown of the assembly line, exposing them to humidity inside the plant.”

The Alpha bags were installed in more than one million Honda and Acura cars between 2001 and 2003. They caused 11 of the 15 U.S. fatalities when their Takata inflaters ruptured.

Although there had been inklings that Takata air bags could be deadly — with fatal explosions in 2003 and 2004 — the first U.S. recall was initiated by Honda in 2008.

The 10 years that followed have been replete with allegations that Takata cut corners in a rush to fill orders and that the company sought to cover up tests that revealed the severity of the problem.

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