Today’s bankruptcy filing by beleaguered Japanese airbag supplier Takata Corp. puts a spotlight on what has become the biggest safety-related recall in automotive history, a deadly defect linked to at least 16 known deaths and more than 100 injuries.
As part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department earlier this year, Takata agreed to pay a combination of fines and reimbursements, as well as set up a victims’ compensation fund, a deal worth $1 billion in total.
The supplier’s bankruptcy and sale to Chinese-owned Key Safety Systems isn’t likely to impact that settlement. But it's expected to help speed up repairs on the estimated 42 million vehicles sold in the U.S. equipped with the defective airbags. So far, only 38 percent of those vehicles have had their airbag inflators replaced, a situation that could lead to even more deaths and injuries, industry safety experts warn.
Part of the problem is that many of the vehicles using faulty Takata airbags are older – some dating back to the 1990s. Some are already off the road but others may have been sold several times, making it hard to track down the current owners.
The other issue has been a shortage of replacement parts, said Cliff Howard, service advisor at Ferndale Honda in Michigan. “In the beginning, it was a nightmare,” he said. “We had to put people on a waiting list.”
That was especially true in warm, humid regions like Miami, where the Takata airbag defect was first identified. Manufacturing problems at two North American factories meant the company’s airbags were especially sensitive to moisture which would cause their inflators to over-inflate, sending shrapnel spewing into the passenger compartment.
Initially, the Takata recall was focused on products sold in places like Southern Florida. But after several deaths occurred in cooler, drier climates, research revealed that the pyrotechnic compound used in those inflators – explosive ammonium nitrate – can break down over time, with as much as 50% or more of decade-old inflators tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failing.
But the government still wants automakers to focus their repair campaigns on places like Miami first. That was a real strain, until recently, for dealerships like Toyota of North Miami, where Service Manager Antoine Kerlinst said his repair department is only just now getting good supplies.
“The situation has improved, but not for all models,” he said, noting that the dealership is telling owners of some Toyota Corolla models they might not be able to be fixed until this December.
Under pressure from federal regulators, automakers have made it easier for owners to check out their vehicles without going into the service shop. Every manufacturer’s website now has a link to a recall database.
Alternatively, owners can go to the NHTSA site, SaferCar.gov, and enter their VIN to see if there’s an outstanding recall.
The "Vehicle Identification Number" is listed on state registration papers – and can also be found by peeking through your windshield at the plate bolted to the front of the instrument panel.
What happens if you’re on a recall list?
- The first step is to call your dealer or another one representing that brand and set up a repair appointment. Recall work is normally free and shouldn’t take long.
- If the dealership can’t make repairs immediately, ask what your alternatives are. You’re likely to be put on a waiting list. In some cases, manufacturers may offer loaner vehicles – often at no cost – while you wait.
- You also can call the carmaker’s factory rep to see if they can help speed up repairs. Check your owner's manual for the contact number.
Under the terms of the Takata bankruptcy and sale, the new owners will owner a pledge to set up a $125 million victims’ compensation program. Experts say it is possible that some instances where airbags malfunctioned haven’t been reported. If that happened, report your experience on the SaferCar.org website.