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Driver Side Airbag Rupture Caused Fatal Injuries During Vehicle Repairs: NHTSA

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More than three years after massive Takata airbag recalls began, federal regulators have identified a 12th death in the United States, which occurred when a defective airbag inflator ruptured while a Florida man was attempting to make repairs to his 2001 Honda Accord.

The Takata airbag death was reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on July 10, amid recent news that the Japanese airbag manufacturer has initiated proceedings to escape mounting liabilities by filing for bankruptcy protection.

An estimated 70 million vehicles have been subject to airbag recalls since June 2014, involving about 125 million defective Takata inflators that may unexpectedly rupture, sending sharp pieces of shrapnel toward drivers and passengers.

Recognized as the largest automotive safety recall ever recorded, the NHTSA has indicated that the recall impacts nearly 20 automakers, whose vehicles make up over 90% of automotive fleet on highways in the United States. Experts have referred to the vehicles, most of which are still on roadways and unrepaired, as “ticking time-bombs” that could explode and kill or severely injure occupants at any moment.

The reasoning behind the recall is the design of the Takata inflators, which are ammonium nitrate based inflators that have been found to pose explosion risks under certain conditions, unlike normal inflators. Investigations by the NHTSA have indicated that the inflators are more susceptible to explode in more humid climates, mainly southern regions of the U.S. that are closer to the equator. The NHTSA has specifically stated that the ammonium nitrate based propellants are not suitable for inflator designs due to the unknown effects of climate impact.

In November 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that a consent order was filed against Takata, requiring the company to pay up to $200 million in fines; $70 million now and $130 million if the company fails to meet the obligations of the consent order.

Shortly after the consent order, the NHTSA issued an order for Takata and vehicle manufacturers to not only speed up the recall repairs, which have lagged due to a lack of parts, but to also make the companies prioritize the recalls so that the air bags most likely to explode are repaired first. The highest risk airbags are those that are operated in high humidity areas and are older. Vehicles with two airbags affected by the recalls are also given a priority.

Despite oversight and control of the repair process, Takata recently recalled 2.7 million of the new air bag inflators, saying that efforts to add a drying agent to combat moisture to offset the ammonium nitrate compound in the inflator were not sufficient, and would not be a long lasting repair.

According to the NHTSA report involving this most recent airbag death, the Takata inflator ruptured while the individual was using a hammer to make repairs to a 2001 Honda, which had the ignition switch in the “on” position at the time. Something activated the inflator, which ruptured and projected sharp pieces of the inflator housing at the Florida resident, according to the NHTSA. The incident occurred in June 2016, and the man died the next day under hospital care.

Worldwide, this is at least the 17th confirmed death linked to an airbag inflator rupture, with 12 of the fatalities occurring in the United States. Of the U.S. deaths, at least 11 occurred in Honda vehicles, which the majority of incidents occurring in dry and humid southern and western regions.

The news comes the same month that Takata Corporation announced that it has filed for bankruptcy, due to an estimated $50 billion dollars of liability stemming from the recalls, including the expected costs of repairs, depreciated values to automobiles, fines, and civil lawsuits filed against the company on behalf of individuals who have suffered severe or fatal injuries.

The company reportedly plans to sell its non-airbag operations for $1.6 billion to focus its attention primarily on creating replacements for the 125 million recalled inflators.

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