Airbags are a required safety feature on cars sold in the U. S. since at least 1998. They have undoubtedly saved lives, especially in situations where the driver or passengers neglected to use seatbelts. So whatever else we say about them, we should bear in mind that overall, cars are probably safer with airbags than without them. But only if the airbags themselves are safe. And lately, some drivers have found that the airbag cure was much worse than the accident disease.
Over a hundred injuries and at least two fatalities have been attributed to defective airbags made by Japanese supplier Takata. According to the New York Times, in 2009 a 33-year-old mother of three ran into a mail truck in Richmond, Virginia, and her airbag deployed. The injuries from the wreck itself were minor. But a piece of shrapnel from the metal canister containing the airbag explosive shot through her neck and she allegedly bled to death as a result.
For an airbag to be an effective cushion during a collision, it has to deploy in well under a tenth of a second. This involves creating a large volume of high-pressure gas in a short time. The early airbags used an explosive called sodium azide, but the residue was toxic. So in the 1990s, manufacturers began to research other chemicals that would be less noxious and also allow for a smaller propellant package.
Takata, one of the largest airbag suppliers in the world, developed a compound based largely on good old ammonium nitrate (the same chemical involved in the West, Texas explosion on April 17, 2013), along with other components designed to moderate the tendency of this substance to detonate and to absorb moisture. The manufacture of any product involving explosives requires rigorous adherence to procedures that maintain the integrity of the ingredients all the way from the raw materials to the finished item. But as various documents have indicated, Takata has not always been sufficiently diligent in their manufacturing processes.
As Takata has responded to inquiries by automaker customers and regulatory agencies, it has admitted to several manufacturing errors over the years. Again according to the Times, one set of defective airbags was attributed to workers in a Mexican assembly plant who allowed moisture-sensitive explosive ingredients to sit on the plant floor too long in a humid environment. Other documents show rusty propellant containers and foreign objects in the propellant cans may have been responsible. Problems with the airbags began to show up as long ago as 2004, and in a series of widening recalls in the last few months, eleven automakers have recalled over 14 million vehicles for replacement of suspect airbags made by Takata. Many of the vehicles being recalled are in the most humid states in the U. S., which indicates that deterioration due to high humidity is the main culprit here. Toyota has told its dealers that if the replacement airbags on a recalled vehicle are not immediately available, they should put a sticker on the dashboard next to the defective airbag. The sticker reads "Do Not Sit Here." Good luck with that.
This particular story comes close to home, personally. In our Honda household we operate both a Civic and an Element. They are very good cars, but neither has been in a major collision that set off the airbags. For this I am grateful. I checked their VINs (vehicle identification numbers) at a U. S. government website designed to let owners know of any recalls out on their vehicles, and hit the jackpot both times. I don't think I'll wait for the dealer to write me. My 89-year-old father-in-law rides in the passenger seat of the Element. It would be a shame for a World War II U. S. Navy veteran of the Pacific theater to be cut down by a defective Japanese airbag. But it could happen, at least until I get those airbags replaced.
As hazards go, this one is not worth lying awake nights about, unless maybe you work for Takata or one of the affected automakers. As long as you're not in a wreck, apparently the airbags won't spontaneously combust, and most of them appear to work properly, especially if you don't live in an area that's particularly humid (watch out, Houstonians!). But even a few defective airbags are too many.
We won't know for some time why it took so long to uncover the problems and do something about them. But some contributing factors are apparent already. First, the problem arose not in a particular automaker's design (as was the case with the GM ignition recall), but with a supplier's manufacturing process. It is impossible to test an airbag non-destructively, so except for sample testing, which automakers may or may not do, I'm not sure how they could have caught the problem by incoming inspections of Tanaka's product.
People can be injured even by airbags that work properly and have no design or manufacturing defects, so sorting out incidents that involve defective airbags from those that don't is not a trivial problem, except in the glaringly obvious cases when metal shards from the airbag tear it to ribbons and slice into passengers. And while the automakers did the minimum required when they received word about the airbag injuries, which was to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) within five days, they don't have to give a lot of details. And if the feds choose not to follow up the notification, the matter ends there, as it did for most of the last ten years. Only when lawsuits and headlines began to pop up about the matter did the automakers start issuing recalls and pressured Takata to shape up.
I don't know what Takata's market share in the airbag industry is, but my guess is it's pretty high. Companies that sell products to large OEM (original equipment manufacturer) firms often develop too-chummy relationships with their few customers, who in turn are reluctant to threaten to take their business elsewhere if problems arise. It's the old monopoly problem, but in this case the consumer is harmed not by exploitative prices—I'm sure the automakers pressured Takata to keep their prices down—but by defective merchandise. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for this type of structural problem, except for buyers and regulators to be increasingly vigilant for signs that there is a manufacturing problem.
If you happen to drive one of the fourteen million vehicles affected by the recall, here's hoping you get your car to the dealer soon—and you get it back with something better than a "Do Not Sit Here" sticker.
Sources: Car and Driver magazine's online edition carried a report on the recall that I referred to, at http://blog.caranddriver.com/massive-takata-airbag-recall-everything-you-need-to-know-including-full-list-of-affected-vehicles/. I also referred to the New York Times article published online on Sept. 11, 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/12/business/air-bag-flaw-long-known-led-to-recalls.html. The U. S. NHTSA's VIN recall website is at https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/.