Takata Airbags Blamed For Another Death Bringing Recall Count To 24 Million

A faulty Takata airbag has been blamed for a 10th death according to a report from the New York Times. The man died in December after the Takata airbag in his 2006 Ford Ranger pickup truck exploded. When federal regulators announced the death, they also announced that they were adding 5 million Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz vehicles to a recall that previously included only Honda vehicles. This addition brings the total number of vehicles recalled as a result of faulty Takata airbags to 24 million.

The first known rupture of a Takata airbag happened over 10 years ago. In that time, overall, over a quarter of driver-side airbags and over a quarter of passenger-side airbags have been replaced according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

It isn’t definitively known what is causing the Takata airbags to rupture, but regulators theorize that ammonium nitrate in the propellant breaks down over time or when it’s exposed to moisture. Violent combustion results, causing the propellant’s metal casing to overpressurize and rupture. Drivers are killed when the ruptured Takata airbag showers them with metal and plastic shrapnel. Regulators have told Takata that they must prove the safety of ammonium nitrate in their product by 2018 if they want to avoid a recall of all their airbags.

Gordon Trowbridge of the NHTSA expressed his concern about Takata airbags in vehicles that are currently on the road.

“Many millions of these vehicles are are relatively new, and given what we know about the role of age in degrading the ammonium nitrate propellant, are unlikely to present a rupture risk for some years… If the NHTSA believes a vehicle presents an unreasonable risk to safety, the agency will seek a recall.”

USA Today reports that a million Ford Rangers (the vehicle driven by the latest victim of a ruptured Takata airbag) are included in the additional 5 million that will be recalled. The other 4 million are vehicles containing a different kind of Takata inflator than the Rangers, but that ruptured three times in recent tests. Previous tests of 1,900 Ranger inflators indicated no problems.

In November, Takata agreed to pay between $70 million and $200 million in penalties for failing to promptly disclose and repair faulty airbags. Ninety-eight injuries have been attributed to faulty Takata airbags, in addition to the 10 deaths.

Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, explained to Forbes the challenge of locating all of the vehicles containing defective Takata airbags.

“Auto manufacturers can’t expect consumers to proactively research whether their car has a Takata airbag. The manufacturers need to exhaustively research and aggressively reach out to owners to get the airbags fixed. This is a widespread issue and there could be many dangerous vehicles unwittingly on the road.”

Takata currently holds 20 percent of the U.S. airbag market. They are the only major airbag producer used by the U.S. that uses ammonium nitrate.

Takata products were the reason for another large-scale recall in the mid-90s. In 1995, nearly 8 million, mostly-Japanese vehicles that were produced between 1986 and 1991 were recalled for faulty seatbelts produced by Takata. Initially, manufacturers thought the problems may have been the result of abuse by drivers and passengers. An investigation determined, however, that the cause of the malfunctioning seatbelts was the plastic Takata used to produce them. This seatbelt recall was the second largest in the history of the Department of Transportation at that time. Honda and Takata had to pay a $50,000 civil penalty for failing to notify the DOT of the problem. The current automobile recall as a result of defective Takata airbags is the largest in U.S. history.

[Photo courtesy of Alex Brandon/Associated Press]

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