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NHTSA: Total Takata Air Bag Recall Would Not Increase Safety

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In early March 2016, Toyota announced that it was recalling an additional 331,000 vehicles worldwide because of potentially defective Takata air bags. This latest recall covers passenger-side, instead of driver’s-side, airbags in 2008 Toyota Corrola and Corrola Matrix, and in the 2008 through 2010 Lexus SC 430.

This is one of many recalls that Toyota and other automakers have implemented over the last couple of years. For Toyota, it brings its total recall to about 15 million vehicles globally. So far, over 24 million vehicles have been recalled in the U.S. alone, all to replace Takata air bags that may explode upon deployment, sending pieces of shrapnel into the interior of the vehicle that can cause life-threatening injuries. The air bags have been linked with at least 10 deaths and over 100 injuries so far.

As the recalls pile up, some have asked—why not just recall all Takata air bags? But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stated that a total recall would not provide significant safety benefits.

NHTSA Says that a Broader Recall Could Compromise Safety

While Takata and 14 automakers struggle to complete repairs to millions of vehicles, there remain millions of vehicles on the road that may contain potentially dangerous Takata air bags. The NHTSA fined Takata $70 million last fall and set up a series of deadlines by which the company must complete repairs. These deadlines proceed according to the perceived danger of the airbags.

Though we still don’t know exactly what causes the air bags to explode, some factors seem to increase the risk. Areas of warm temperature and high humidities, for example, are believed to be more at risk, since these environmental conditions can increase the likelihood that the chemical inside the air bag inflator, ammonium nitrate, may become unstable.

According to U. S. News, on February 10, 2016, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla) asked the NHTSA to require that Takata stop manufacturing ammonium nitrate inflators, and urged a total recall of all Takata inflators. The NHTSA has already required that Takata stop using ammonium nitrate, unless Takata can prove that it is completely safe. Mark Rosekind, head of the NHTSA, responded to Nelson by stating that a broader recall could compromise safety, as it would divert replacement parts from the areas where they are most needed (areas of high temperature and high humidity) into other areas where risks of exploding air bags are much lower.

Sen. Nelson, in turn, responded that he was unhappy with Rosekind’s response, and that Takata should not be trusted. Meanwhile, Takata has agreed to phase out marketing of ammonium nitrate by the end of 2018.

Remaining Air Bags Contain a Drying Agent that Reduces Risk of Explosion

There is another reason the NHTSA may be holding off on a total recall. There remain about 50 million vehicles on the road with Takata inflators that are not currently under any recalls. According to U.S. News, most of these vehicles contain a drying agent that helps ensure the ammonium nitrate is not affected by humidity or moisture that could cause it to destabilize. Rosekind has stated that the NHTSA is not aware of any inflators with these drying agents that have exploded.

Critics say that the “piecemeal” approach to Takata air bag recalls is confusing to consumers. Many don’t know if their vehicle is under recall or not, or if their vehicle even has a Takata air bag or not. A total recall would solve that problem, but the NHTSA has stated that such a move would exceed its authority, and wouldn’t make the public any safer.

Takata and automakers have sought out additional air bag manufacturers to help meet supply demands for replacement parts. Of remaining concern is the question of whether some of those replacements also contain ammonium nitrate.