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From Airbag to Body Bag


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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to drive around with a live hand grenade attached your steering wheel that could explode at the slightest collision? It sounds farcical, but there’s a good chance you are doing exactly that.

The Takata company essentially had a monopoly on the airbag business. They created a different type of airbag, which utilized ammonium nitrate, unlike the tried and true tetrazole that other companies used. They sold it for much cheaper and many automakers jumped at the chance to save some money. Nobody realized these airbags would come at a deadly cost.

The airbags have a 50-50 chance of exploding in a fender bender, unleashing shrapnel that can maim and kill. The first airbag to explode and kill drivers and passengers occurred in 2004. Takata ran tests, discovered the situation was more than an anomaly, and covered up the findings. In 2008, Honda was the first vehicle manufacturer to recall vehicles containing these airbags. Other companies followed suit and a mass recall commenced.

“The recall involves more than 37 million vehicles built by 19 automakers. At least 22 people worldwide have been killed and hundreds more permanently disfigured when the air bags that deployed to protect them instead exploded and sprayed shrapnel.”

The Justice Department fined Takata $1 billion for this failure. “Takata has admitted to a scheme to defraud its customers by manipulating test data regarding the performance of its airbag inflaters. They falsified and manipulated data because they wanted to make profits.”

Three key executives are under federal indictment for manipulating test data. It came out that the company cut corners to meet the demand of orders and suppressed tests that indicated there might be a problem. They had known as early as 2000 that their airbags could explode. Takata declared bankruptcy in 2017 due to the airbag scandal.

One of the biggest issues is the customer being aware of this problem. Automotive companies sent out letters to their customers warning them about the dangers of the faulty airbags and offered to replace them. Although many customers sent their cars in, many more were not aware. People who bought their cars used did not appear on the list, and some owners did not receive a recall letter at all.

The Takata airbag farce has affected me in several ways. I used to work at Honda and we had hundreds of cars sitting on the lot, undrivable, unsellable, because of the faulty airbags. It also cost a fortune because the Honda mechanics could only replace the airbags as the new ones trickled in at a snail’s pace. The recalled cars sat on the lot, and the owners had to drive rentals at Honda’s expense.

These airbags are found in a variety of different vehicle brands. For a year, every time I visited my parents, I had to ride in the back because my mother’s Toyota and my father’s Chevrolet both had passenger airbag problems. I’m fortunate that my Toyota did not need a recall, but I had to go out of my way to make sure. Check out this website to see if your car needs a new airbag, and follow the steps to get it replaced.

The airbags tend to do worse in a warm and humid environment, so Houstonians must be extra vigilant. Have your friends and family ride in the back seat, no matter how strange it might seem to chauffeur them around. It could very well save their lives.

Washington Post article

Consumer Reports

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