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In modern vehicles, airbags offer added protection for drivers and passengers during a crash. Working in conjunction with seat belts, they help prevent injuries caused by impact with steering wheels, dashboards, and windshields, and side-impact airbags create a protective barrier between car doors and occupants. But occasionally, airbags do more harm than good.
When an airbag deploys unexpectedly, a driver may be unable to see the road. A far greater danger is an airbag that explodes, and millions of people may be driving vehicles that are at risk for that type of airbag malfunction.
In November 2015, Toyota became the latest automaker to announce it would no longer use Takata airbag inflators. The faulty inflators have been linked to eight deaths – all in Honda vehicles – and have resulted in the recall of millions of vehicles worldwide. Honda and Mazda dropped Takata inflators a few weeks before Toyota’s announcement.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the first documented Takata airbag inflator injury occurred in 2007; the airbag exploded, sending bits of metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment. The ensuing deaths and injuries in Honda vehicles occurred in the same manner. One woman was fatally wounded in front of her three children, in a minor crash that she would have survived, if not for the exploding airbag. Another woman was idling at a stoplight when her airbag exploded, puncturing her neck and causing other injuries. In all, Takata inflators are believed to have caused 139 injuries.
Takata blamed isolated manufacturing flaws at a Mexico plant for the airbag ruptures, and Honda therefore initially recalled only about 4,000 cars in 2008, according to the NHTSA. Six months later, a woman whose Honda was not on that recall list suffered severe injuries when her car’s airbag ruptured.
In 2014, a New York Times investigation revealed that before Honda issued its initial recall, it had confidentially reached settlements with people who had been injured in airbag accidents. When it did notify regulators about three airbag ruptures that occurred in 2007, it did not specifically say that the airbags posed an explosion risk.
U.S. investigators now know that manufacturing flaws weren’t the cause of the malfunctions; instead, it was Takata’s use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant. Takata is the only airbag manufacturer that uses the compound, which can become unstable due to humidity or temperature changes.
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the scope of this recall. The airbag replacement parts must be installed at a dealership, and the sheer volume of affected cars means customers can’t expect immediate service – especially because dealerships are running out of parts and waiting on further shipments. As a result, an unknown number of people are continuing to drive their cars, even before the airbag defect has been repaired.
Until recently, investigators have been concerned primarily with Takata’s front airbags. But now, the NHTSA is investigating whether airbags located in other parts of vehicles may be subject to the same malfunction, after receiving a report that a side airbag in a 2015 Volkswagen shot shrapnel into the driver, nearly killing him. Chevrolet also reported that it recalled a handful of cars outside the U.S., after Takata reported a side airbag failed during testing.
The Takata airbag recall is just one of many far-reaching automotive recalls that’s come to light in recent years. Automakers continue to put vehicles on the market that have deadly flaws, such as malfunctioning brakes and steering defects that could increase the risk of a crash. Sadly, it’s only after someone is hurt or killed that some vehicle defects are discovered.
Louthian Law Firm has seen the results of careless automotive manufacturing processes and poor safety testing, and we work tirelessly to help people whose injuries were caused by vehicle defects. If an airbag malfunction or other car defect has harmed you or someone in your family, fill out our online form, or call us today at (803) 454-1200.