Replacement of Airbags Accelerated by NHTSA as Recalled Inflators Remain in Vehicles

As many vehicles remain on the road with recalled Takata airbag inflators, which have already been linked to at least 11 deaths and nearly 200 injuries, federal safety officials are working to accelerate the speed of repairs and availability of airbag replacements nationwide.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released an Amended Coordinated Remedy Order on December 9, demanding the airbag inflator manufacturer, Takata, and the 19 impacted automakers across the U.S. increase the availability of replacement inflators to speed up the repair process to prevent further injuries or deaths.

The recalled airbag inflators have been found to unexpectedly explode under certain conditions, such as high humidity, causing the airbag to over-inflate and send shrapnel flying into the passenger compartment of the vehicle. The NHTSA investigation has suggested that ammonium nitrate based propellants used in the inflators may cause the airbag explosions and that the chemical may not be safe for inflator designs.

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Since the investigation was launched and the first Takata airbag recalls were issued in June 2014, a mere 12.5 million inflators have been replaced of the 46 million potentially defective inflators that may still be installed in an estimated 29 million vehicles throughout the United States.

As the recall programs commenced in late 2014, both Takata and the impacted manufacturers fell far behind in planning and coordinating recall repairs, as the number of impacted vehicles grew by the millions nearly every month.

The rupturing Takata airbag inflator recalls are the largest and most complex recall to ever hit the auto industry. According to an Amended Consent Order issued to Takata by the NHTSA on May 4, 2016, the number of vehicles set to be recalled over the next three years could reach between 64 and 69 million, following scientific based studies to determine whether the non-desiccated phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate (PSAN) used in Takata airbag inflators are safe.

Pending on the conclusion of the research, additional recalls impacting an estimated 30-45 million vehicles will be issued up until December 2019, potentially putting the recall repair program years behind schedule.

Periodic updates by the Department of Transportation (DOT) have indicated that a lack of supply and manufacturing ability has limited and hindered the recall repair process, leaving tens of millions of vehicles equipped with potentially lethal airbag inflators still on the road. Experts have called the delay in repairs a nightmare, warning that people are driving ticking time-bombs.

A total of 11 deaths and 180 injuries have been reported in the United States alone, with gruesome reports of shrapnel being projected throughout the cabin of the vehicle at drivers and occupants. Shortly after the NHTSA’s discovery that the ammonium based nitrate propellant could cause explosions under humid conditions, the agency focused their initial recall efforts in southern states where vehicles would be more susceptible to explosions.

According to the NHTSA’s most recent research, a combination of time, environmental moisture and cycling high temperatures may contribute to the degradation of the ammonium nitrate propellant in the recalled Takata inflators. This degradation can cause the propellant to burn too quickly, rupturing the inflator module and sending shrapnel through the air bag and into the vehicle’s cabin.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx states that the agency is hopeful the amended order will speed up the repair process and make replacement inflators more readily available to manufacturers to achieve the 100% recall completion goal in the fastest time possible. However, with their only being 12.5 million inflators repaired and potentially another 30-45 million vehicles likely set to be recalled by 2019, the agency could fall further behind once again, leaving consumers driving vehicles with potentially explosive Takata airbag inflators.


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