Car Safety Now Focuses on Millions of Air Bags

International New York Times

June 25, 2014

One of the most critical safety components in cars, the air bag, is rapidly becoming a central concern of automakers and regulators.

Recalls related to air bags have affected at least 10 million of the more than 30 million cars recalled in the United States so far this year, according to a New York Times review of regulatory records. On Monday, seven additional automakers said that they were recalling more than three million vehicles worldwide because their air bags, made by the Takata Corporation, could rupture and send debris flying inside a car.

The move is the latest in a series of recalls related to air bags made by Takata, one of the world's top automotive supply firms, which has run afoul of regulators and prosecutors.

In April and May of last year, several Japanese automakers, along with BMW, recalled a total of 3.6 million cars over the same defect. Then on June 11 of this year, Toyota expanded that recall by 2.3 million vehicles—many for the second time, though for a different air bag—because, Takata said, it kept inadequate records. The number of recalled cars could still rise as automakers discover more models fitted with defective air bags.

Those numbers reflect in part stepped-up scrutiny by regulators, particularly in the United States.

The recalls announced on Monday, which included cars made by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, Chrysler and BMW—were responding to an investigation opened this month by the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after it received three complaints of injuries caused by rupturing of the air bag inflators.

A Honda spokesman said the company was aware of more than 30 injuries and two deaths in the United States related to all the Takata air bags.

For those who have been injured, the consequences have been devastating.

In 2010, Kristy Williams was stopped at a red light in Georgia when the air bags manufactured by Takata in her 2001 Honda Civic spontaneously deployed. She was hit by metal shards from the canister that housed the air bag's propellant; the shards were sharp enough to penetrate the fabric of the air bag and puncture her neck and carotid artery.

Williams required several operations and later suffered seizures and several strokes, her lawyers said in a statement at the time. Within nine months, Honda and Takata reached a settlement to compensate Williams. The terms were not disclosed.

The recall on Monday also reflects a long-term change in the auto industry, where more automakers use the same parts, said Brett Smith, the program director of industry analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan.

Takata, based in Japan, has about 20% of the air bag market, in a field dominated by three major suppliers: Takata; the Swedish-American manufacturer Autoliv, which has about 35% of the global market; and the American supplier TRW Automotive, which has about 20%.

Takata began making air bags in 1988, seeing an opportunity when American regulators began to require them.

The company grew rapidly, investing heavily in research and also expanding through acquisitions. In 1988, it acquired the industrial fabrics unit of Burlington Industries, based in Greensboro, NC, and reorganized its operations to manufacture air bags there. Then in 2000, Takata acquired a majority stake in a German air bag manufacturer, Petri.

Overnight, Takata had become one of the largest air bag manufacturers in the world. Takata's experience, growing through acquisition, is not uncommon in the global auto supply industry. Smith said that the recession had accelerated the consolidation among global parts suppliers.

''The 2008-9 period led to a lot of acquisitions, a lot of closures,'' he said in a telephone interview.

Today, even though Takata has a spotty safety record—faulty seatbelts that it manufactured forced recalls of almost nine million cars in the 1990s—carmakers have continued to use the company.

''There aren't a lot of air bag companies left,'' said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a consulting firm in Massachusetts. ''Takata is a global supplier for a number of automakers.”

It is unclear when Takata became aware of possible defects in its air bags, some manufactured over a decade ago at its plant in Mexico.

Takata said in a statement on Monday that it thought excessive moisture was behind the defect.

Moisture and humidity could be seeping inside inflators, destabilizing the volatile propellant inside, said Haruo Otani, an official at the vehicle recall section of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in Japan.

American regulators said they had received six reports of air bag inflator ruptures, all in Florida or Puerto Rico, before Monday's recalls.

''Based on the limited data available at this time, NHTSA supports efforts by automakers to address the immediate risk in areas that have consistently hot, humid conditions over extended periods of time,'' the agency said in a statement.

Honda's most recent recall covers about two million cars in North America and replaces defective parts in the vehicles' air bags.

Nissan also issued a recall of 755,000 cars worldwide with Takata-made air bags, including 228,000 in North America.

Mazda said it would call back about 160,000 cars for the same issue, about 15,000 of those in North America.

Honda has been hit particularly hard, with a total of about 7.7 million vehicles recalled worldwide because of problems with inflators provided by Takata, a spokesman, Chris Martin, wrote in an email.

Typically, the inflator's metal case ruptures because the propellant inside was not properly prepared and creates more pressure than intended, sending shards of metal into the passenger compartment. If the failure is on the driver's side, the driver may be struck. On the passenger side—because the bag is in the dashboard—the shards are more likely to go up and not toward the occupant.

Honda first issued a limited recall of its Accord and Civic models in 2008, saying air bag inflators could blow up violently, propelling dangerous debris into the car.

Two deaths in the United States have been linked to exploding air bags, in Oklahoma and Virginia, both in 2009 and in Honda vehicles. In both cases, Honda and Takata settled with the families of the victims.

Last week, Takata said that it had improperly stored chemicals and had mishandled the manufacture of explosive propellants, used in the air bags, at its plant in Mexico. The manufacturer had also failed to keep adequate records of quality control, making it difficult to identify vehicles with potentially defective air bags and prompting a second round of recalls.

''We take this situation seriously, will strengthen our quality control and make a concerted effort to prevent a recurrence,'' the company said.

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