Public Safety

Iowa drivers, dealers face 'nightmare' of massive air bag recall

Roughly 340,000 vehicles in Iowa may be affected

University of Iowa Provost Barry Butler holds a mock-up of a passenger-side air bag deployment mechanism in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
University of Iowa Provost Barry Butler holds a mock-up of a passenger-side air bag deployment mechanism in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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Iowa consumers and auto dealers still are learning to what extent they will be affected by faulty air bags that triggered the largest vehicle recall in U.S. history.

The recall includes automakers such as Nissan, Toyota, Ford, Mitsubishi and Chrysler, but the full scope of makes and models among the 34 million vehicles being recalled — roughly 1 in 7 vehicles in the United States — may not be known for days.

Jeremy Ford, 30, of Coralville, said he hasn’t received recall notices for either of his two vehicles, but anticipates they’re forthcoming.

“It seems to me this is another example of vehicles not meeting safety standards, and the last couple times the company knew about it,” Ford said. “It’s greed and lack of regulation that cause these problems.”

Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. this week doubled its recall of potentially deadly air bags to nearly 34 million since 2008.

The New York Times reported the company acknowledged manufacturing errors and flaws in design and components, including the potential for moisture to leak into some air bag inflaters. making them susceptible to explosions.

University of Iowa provost and engineering professor Barry Butler was part of a team that worked with General Motors and Ford a decade ago on passenger air bag inflaters. They created software to model combustion of the propellant, he said.

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Butler, who hasn’t been involved in the recall, said inflaters are designed to fire a propellant, which releases gas and rapidly inflates an air bag when a crash is detected. Each unit can handle a certain amount of force, and is hermetically sealed to preserve the propellant like new for the life of the car, potentially 20 or 30 years.

If not sealed properly, humidity or moisture could seep in and change the shape of the propellant. The altered propellant could produce gas much faster than intended, thus exploding the unit and sending shrapnel into the vehicle.

According to Reuters, six deaths — in Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, California and Malaysia — linked to the defective air bags have all been in cars made by Honda. Takata had once said the issues were tied to high humidity areas, but in the New York Times reported the company said it still is investigating the root cause.

Butler said that since the full cause isn’t known, it’s hard to say one region is any more or less susceptible to a faulty air bag.

“This is certainly a setback for the technology and industry,” he said. “But it is important to remember air bags since the 1970s have played a critical role in vehicle safety and saving lives.”

Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association, said dealers are also trying to figure out which cars are being recalled. He said Iowa has about 1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet, meaning roughly 340,000 vehicles in Iowa may be affected.

“It’s really an opportunity to do repair work for an important safety recall, and from a dealer’s perspective it’s an opportunity to showcase their service because it has to be performed exclusively by the dealer.”

Manufacturers should notify vehicle owners by mail of the recall, and replacement is free to the consumer as well as the dealer, he said.

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“If Honda issues recalls to its customers directing them to go to Honda dealers, it doesn’t matter if they bought the car new or the fourth owner bought off Craigslist,” he said.

Given the sheer quantity of vehicles, it could take some time to complete the repairs. While manpower and contacting motorists could be factors, getting the needed parts from manufactures could be the biggest obstacle.

“It’s a nightmare for everyone,” said Frank Juliano, operations manager at Billion Auto in Iowa City. “It is an inconvenience for the customer, and given the magnitude of this, getting the product could be the toughest thing.”

Is my vehicle being recalled?

Consumers can check the online database of the National Highway Traffic Administration, but be warned: It could be days before

you get an answer, as consumers are overwhelming the website and it takes time to match records with a particular vehicle. You

will need the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, and then go to www.nhtsa.gov.

The recall affects vehicles from 11 automakers.

But even if you have one of these cars, that does not mean your particular vehicle is on the recall list.

• Honda

• Toyota

• Fiat Chrysler

• Daimler truck

• BMW

• Ford

• General Motors

• Mazda

• Mitsubishi

• Nissan

• Subaru

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.