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NHTSA Announces Additional Recalls Affecting VW, Mercedes, and Saab

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Over 19 million vehicles have already been recalled for defective Takata air bags. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that number is likely to continue to grow this year—perhaps by a lot.

In a January 22, 2016 report in Reuters, regulators announced a new recall of about 5 million more vehicles that may have potentially defective Takata air bags. New tests on the air bags prompted the recall, as they showed that more air bags may be at risk for rupture.

Recalls Involve Automakers New to the Takata Air Bag Problem

The new recall involves some automakers that have so far escaped the Takata air bag fiasco. These include Volkswagen and Audi, Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz, and Saab. Other automakers that were already working on recalls—including Ford, Honda, Mazda, and BMS—also have new vehicles included in this recent recall.

Though this recall deals strictly with driver’s side air bags, other recalls have expanded to include passenger side frontal air bags as well, as testing revealed their potential for defects. At issue is the inflator in the air bags, which under some circumstances can cause the air bag to explode upon deployment. The rupture sends shrapnel into the interior of the vehicle, which can cause knife-like wounds on occupants, sometimes resulting in life-threatening bleeding. So far, the defect has been linked with at least nine deaths and over 100 injuries.

Regulators are especially suspicious of the fuel used in the inflators, called “ammonium nitrate.” Takata switched to this chemical in 2001, despite concerns about its stability from their own engineers. The NHTSA, when they fined the company $70 million last November, insisted that Takata phase out their use of ammonium nitrate in inflators by 2018, unless Takata can prove that the chemical is safe as used in air bag inflators.

Uncertainties Remain in Determining Vehicle Safety

NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind attempted to explain the ever-expanding Takata air bag recalls by noting that the company attempted to conceal the seriousness of the issue for years. “The fact that this crisis festered for so long,” he said, according to USA Today, “that some made efforts to obscure its seriousness, should sober everyone in this industry.”

One of the reasons why so many vehicles are affected is because Takata still doesn’t know exactly what’s causing the air bags to explode. Though many suspect that ammonium nitrate is the problem, especially in areas of high humidity, lab tests have still failed to come up with the specific parameters of what’s involved in a Takata air bag rupture. For that reason, the NHTSA is casting a wide net to hopefully capture all potentially affected vehicles, and prevent any further injuries and loss of life.

Tests on Ford air bag inflators, for example, showed no unusual problems, but then there was another Takata air-bag-related fatality in December 2015, in a 2006 Ford Ranger. This alerted regulators to the fact that tests may not always be completely reliable when it comes to determining which vehicles are safe and which are not.

Automakers have the arduous task of extensively researching their vehicles to determine which have Takata air bags in preparation for current and future recalls. “This is a widespread issue and there could be many dangerous vehicles unwittingly on the road,” Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, told Forbes.

The most current list of vehicles affected by Takata air bag recalls is available at www.safercar.gov.