Extremely Dangerous Air Bags Continue to Go Unrepaired in Spite of Warnings

Hundreds of thousands of Honda air bags may still rupture and cause injury or death

Extremely Dangerous Air Bags Continue to Go Unrepaired in Spite of Warnings
Image: Honda
October 26, 2016

More than 300,000 Hondas still need to have their air bags repaired in spite of warnings from both the automaker and regulators about the extremely high likelihood that the air bags will rupture and cause injury or even death.

According to authorities, one of the affected air bags—equipped with an inflator manufactured by Takata—ruptured and killed a California woman last week.

Approximately 69 million inflators made by Takata have been recalled due to the risk of rupture. Back in June, government regulators stated that testing showed that inflators present in 313,000 older Hondas and Acuras had as high as a 50 percent chance of rupturing in an accident. The regulators told owners to stop driving the vehicles and get them repaired. Four months later, however, only 13,000 have been fixed.

Takata's air bags inflate using an explosion created by ammonium nitrate, which can deteriorate when it is exposed to heat and humidity. When this happens, it may blow a metal canister apart and spew shrapnel in all directions, including through the air bag into the driver. The affected inflators have killed as many as 16 people across the world and injured more than 100. The death of Delia Robles—the woman in California—was the eleventh in the U.S. to be tied to Takata air bag inflators.

According to Honda, the manufacturer has sent letters, placed ads on Facebook, made telephone calls, and even visited owners in person in attempts to notify them of the danger. The results indicate, however, that there are still large holes in the U.S. safety recall system: it is often difficult to locate owners, especially for used cars that have been sold and re-sold several times. And some owners, no matter how often they are notified of the danger, simply refuse to get the problem fixed.

Some safety advocates have called for either laws that would prohibit the sale of any vehicles until recall repairs have been made or a nationwide requirement for recalls to be carried out before license plates may be renewed. So far, however, there are few requirements of this type in place.

Senator Bill Nelson believes that Honda should do more to fix the problem. "No responsible automaker should be so slow in repairing defective vehicles where there's up to a 50 percent chance a driver could be killed or seriously injured if an air bag deploys," he stated.

Honda, however, maintains that it is doing everything that it can. "It's not for lack of unprecedented effort to try to reach these owners," company spokesman Chris Martin said, adding that the company will pick up cars and drop off a loaner for the owner's use while theirs is being fixed. He said that Honda has all the necessary parts ready to repair all the affected cars.

According to Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader.com, it is difficult for vehicle manufacturers to find owners of low-cost vehicles that are 10 or 15 years old because many of the people who own them are young and move often or are immigrants who may not speak English fluently. Several cars have had four or even more owners, making them harder to locate.

However, because these particular cars are so dangerous, he says, it is time to either go to each door-to-door for all owners or take all 300,000 affected vehicles off the road.

Martin said that it is not practical for Honda to visit each and every owner with an affected vehicle in person. However, he and other Honda employees have visited some.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spokesman Bryan Thomas said that the agency does not have the legal authority to order these kinds of steps. It is aware that the traditional methods of contacting owners have not been successful, he said, and it is collaborating with Honda on new methods. He did not specify these methods.

NHTSA is, however, looking for a requirement for automakers to notify owners by both e-mail and text message, measures that some automakers already take on their own.

According to Thomas, Honda has informed the agency that many of the affected vehicles have been scrapped, but NHTSA wants proof.