There’s a fascinating new New York Times video about the history of the massive fight against air bags by the auto industry and the Reagan administration. The video is below. GM was one of the biggest resisters. Ironic that today, GM has determined that non-airbag deployment is the key criteria for deciding whether its ignition switch failed. Misguided as that criteria may be, the irony isn’t lost on the rest of us.
But as the New York Times video also points out, airbags have not always been made safely, leading to this observation from Forbes today:
It’s always particularly troubling when a device designed to save lives is taking them. Air bags have faced multiple challenges since the government first mandated them on all vehicles produced after April 1, 1989. The excessive force of early air bags caused several fatalities, with children and small women being the primary victims. Updated, dual-stage air bags were supposed to address the issue, though regulations still require front air bags to fire with the necessary force to save an unbelted adult male.
Today’s problems are seemingly worse. As we last discussed in June, there has been a massive recall of airbags manufactured by Takata. Last week, the New York Times’ front-page story explained the cover-up of this lethal defect. Here are a few excerpts:
Today, more than 14 million vehicles have been recalled by 11 automakers over rupture risks involving air bags manufactured by the supplier, Takata. That is about five times the number of vehicles recalled this year by General Motors for its deadly ignition switch defect.…
The danger of exploding air bags was not disclosed for years after the first reported incident in 2004, despite red flags — including three additional ruptures reported to Honda in 2007, according to interviews, regulatory filings and court records.
In each of the incidents, Honda settled confidential financial claims with people injured by the air bags, but the automaker did not issue a safety recall until late 2008, and then for only a small fraction — about 4,200 — of its vehicles eventually found to be equipped with the potentially explosive air bags.
The delays by both Honda and Takata in alerting the public about the defect — and later in Takata’s acknowledging it extended beyond a small group of Honda vehicles — meant other automakers like BMW, Toyota and Nissan were not aware of possible defects in their own vehicles for years, putting off their recalls. Only last month, Honda issued yet another recall of its own — its ninth for the defect — bringing to six million the total of recalled Honda and Acura vehicles.
Great, but it seems clear that this airbag recall should be far larger than it is. Why? Because the only states where NHTSA is asking for recalls are humid ones. You heard me. Writes Forbes:
If one reads through the recall documents available on the NHTSA website it’s clear every manufacturer involved in this recall is willing to comply with NHTSA’s suggested “regional field action.” The field action, issued on June 11, 2014, calls for the replacement of air bags in certain vehicles located in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.…
Takata is claiming only high humidity will cause the air bags to deteriorate and eventually malfunction. Yet one of the fatalities linked to Takata air bags (shrapnel from the air bag cut a women, causing her to bleed to death) occurred in Richmond, Virginia in 2009. That same year another women was killed in a minor accident in Oklahoma from an exploding Takata air bag. Another air bag incident, also involving hot plastic and metal shrapnel, occurred in Los Angeles just three months ago. The first reported injury related to shrapnel from a Takata air bag deployment took place in 2004 — in Alabama. None of these locations are part of NHTSA’s June “field action” (NHTSA’s documents don’t label this action a recall, and every manufacturer response letter clearly noted that no “safety defect” determination has been made).…
Plenty of unanswered questions about shrapnel-related injuries and fatalities remain, which is arguably the most disturbing aspect of this situation. A series of past recalls by various manufacturers hasn’t solved the problem, and suggestions that only humid climates are at risk seem spurious at best. Humidity may speed up the process, but does anyone really think an air bag problem in Puerto Rico today will never affect a vehicle in Arizona or West Texas? What if you live in Arizona but spend your summers in Florida?
Well, I guess the message from NHTSA is: "don't drive there."