The latest in the Takata air bag nightmare — the largest and most complex auto safety recall in U.S. history — includes an accelerated recall to get the replacements done by a December 2019 deadline.
Takata air bag inflators, which have been under fire by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a safety defect that could cause explosions, have been responsible for more than a dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries in the U.S. The recall affects nearly 70 million parts across 19 different automakers and dates back to May 2015, when Takata, at the insistence of the U.S. Department of Transportation, determined a defect existed. These inflators were made with a propellant that can degrade over time.
NHTSA issued an order for the recall’s acceleration in December 2016, setting requirements for when automakers must have replacement parts available for customers as well as deadlines for replacements of the defective parts. The order makes the repairs available first to the riskiest vehicles, and requires automakers to certify to NHTSA when they’ve obtained a sufficient amount of replacement parts to begin repairs.
How do I know if my car is affected?
Takata air bags are installed in tens of millions of U.S. vehicles and NHTSA says millions more will be added to the list of recalls in the next few years. So far, more than 42 million vehicles are affected and your car could be one of them.
NHTSA reports more than 8.8 million driver-side air bags and 10.1 million passenger air bags have been repaired as of September 2017. Most replacements are in Hondas, Toyotas, and Mazdas.
Recent reports have found inflators in some 2001-03 Hondas and Acuras that have a higher risk of ruptures when the air bag deploys, according to NHTSA. A Takata air bag in a 2001 Honda Civic was the cause of a recent fatality late last year. That vehicle was first recalled in 2008, according to news reports, and a recall repair was never completed.
Why are Takata air bags dangerous?
The aftermath of a defective Takata air bag explosion is frightening. A CNN story describes it as metal shrapnel spraying into the bodies of drivers and front-seat passengers, where victims appear to have been shot or stabbed rather than being in a car accident.
The Takata recalls currently cover frontal inflators that do not include a chemical drying agent that absorbs moisture. Ruptures are far more likely in inflators in vehicles that have spent significant periods of time in humid areas — particularly Florida, Texas, other parts of the Gulf Coast and Southern California, according to NHTSA. Testing of the inflators from these vehicles shows rupture rates as high as 50% in a laboratory setting.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the Takata inflators don’t pose an unreasonable risk to safety when installed in a new vehicle or for several years afterward, but over time, the combined effect of heat and moisture “cause ammonium nitrate propellants to degrade — at varying rates in different conditions — to a point where they are no longer safe and pose an unreasonable risk and should be replaced.”
Can I keep driving with a Takata air bag?
Although it can feel risky to drive around with a potentially defective air bag, NHTSA says frontal air bags saved 2,400 lives in 2014 alone, so it’s more likely if you’re involved in a crash that your air bag will perform properly. Still, don’t be afraid to ask your dealer for a loaner car.
Additionally, while some manufacturers are replacing older Takata inflators with newly manufactured versions of the same inflators as an “interim remedy,” eventually needing replacing, an older inflator is more likely to rupture than a newer one, according to NHTSA data. Any interim repairs are scheduled to be completed for final remedy by the end of 2019.
Air bags that pose a higher safety threat will be fixed first, including older air bags. Affected vehicles, by priority, are available here.
See also: How Do Crash Test Dummies Keep Us Safe?
Stay Informed about Takata Recalls
The NHTSA website features complete information about all the recalls along with a list of affected vehicles — though the best way to find out if your car is affected is to find your VIN number and plug it into the website’s search function. After viewing the list of affected vehicles or searching by VIN, drivers should contact their dealer for repair. The vehicle manufacturer is required to notify about recalls via first-class mail, as well.
Drivers can stay informed of any future recalls via the NHTSA email alerts system, or by downloading the SaferCar app for Apple or Android devices. Vehicles that have not yet been recalled will not be searchable, however, so it’s something that should be checked semi-regularly.
Vehicles that can be repaired now will display that the recall is “incomplete.” For ones that can’t be fixed immediately, it will display “incomplete—parts not available.”
The recall repairs are free. Drivers should contact their manufacturer directly for dealers who refuse to repair a vehicle, or they can file a complaint with the NHTSA.