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Senate Committee Reports New Cars Being Sold with Defective Takata Air Bags

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Millions of Takata air bags have been recalled globally. At last count, it was about 70 million, though the majority of those haven’t been fixed yet.

Still, according to a recent report by U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and other Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee, the recalls are falling short. That’s because four automakers are still selling some new vehicles that are equipped with the potentially defective air bags, meaning that consumers who buy these vehicles will likely have to take them back for air bag replacements within two years.

Meanwhile, other problems remain with the recalls. The completion or “fix” rates remain “unacceptably low,” according to the committee. Those vehicles that are getting repaired are likely to need a second round of repairs in the future because old air bags are being replaced with new ones that are fueled by ammonium nitrate—a chemical that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required Takata to phase out in the next few years.

Four Automakers Selling Cars Equipped with Defective Air Bags

Consumers buying Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi vehicles are warned in the report to beware, as their new vehicles may contain defective airbags that will eventually have to be recalled. The report indicates that these four automakers have confirmed that they are still selling, or have plans to sell, new vehicles equipped with Takata “non-dessicated ammonium-nitrate inflators,” even though they will all be subject to recall by the end of 2018.

Automakers are allowed to keep using these inflators for the time being. But by the end of 2018, unless Takata can demonstrate that inflators using ammonium nitrate are safe, the NHTSA will most likely declare them defective and demand that they be recalled.

“Non-dessicated” inflators are those without a “dessicant,” which helps to absorb any excess moisture produced in the inflator. It is this moisture that is believed to cause the inflator to become unstable and explode upon deployment, sending dangerous shrapnel into the interior of the vehicle.

The NHTSA has determined that air bags that contain a dessicant are less dangerous, even if made with ammonium nitrate. Takata recently agreed to a recall expansion to cover all non-dessicated frontal air bag inflators, so it’s highly unlikely that they will be proving ammonium nitrate safe by 2018.

The committee stated in its report that the sale of new vehicles containing Takata non-dessicated ammonium-nitrate inflators should be stopped until these vehicles are repaired.

Air Bag Repair Rates Remain Unacceptably Low

How many air bag inflators have been replaced so far? According to the report, far too few. As of March 2016, nationwide recall completion rates for individual automakers ranged from 0.04 percent to 39.5 percent, with Honda reporting the highest percentage of repairs finished.

Even in areas of high humidity—areas marked as high priority by the NHTSA—completion rates remain low, from 0 percent to 39.6 percent. The committee acknowledges the difficulties involved, since some vehicle owners don’t keep their addresses updated with their state departments, and since the recall completion rate for older vehicles is typically lower because owners are less likely to fix these vehicles. Still, because of the risks involved, the committee states that “additional steps must be undertaken to identify all impacted vehicles still in service and repair them as soon as possible.”

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    NHTSA should REQUIRE that all vehicles with defective Takata airbags either have 1) the bags replaced with known good ones OR 2) have the bags disconnected until known good ones are available.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association