If you were told you were driving a car with a bomb inside, would you pull over?
The Washington Post reports that more than 60,000 Honda vehicles on the road today have defective airbags that experts have referred to as “ticking time bombs,” an airbag model regarded by safety experts as likeliest to cause serious injury or death. The owners of these vehicles are a small but stubborn subset defying what has been America’s largest safety recall ever. It was initiated in 2008, and directed at Takata Corp., the Japanese manufacturer of the airbags. These owners have ignored the recall notices or never received them; many of the vehicles are older models that probably have changed hands.
The bomb analogy is dramatic but spot on. Worldwide, at least 22 people have been killed when airbags exploded and shot out shrapnel. Hundreds more motorists were seriously injured. The impacts that deployed the devices didn’t have to be major — often they were fender benders. Drivers killed by the airbags have had injuries that resemble gunshot wounds.
In a cost-cutting move, Takata used ammonium nitrate as the material to trigger the airbag inflators when a collision occurred, according to the Post. Ammonium nitrate should ring a bell. It’s the unstable compound that Timothy McVeigh used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the material Afghan Taliban militants have used to craft roadside bombs, the biggest killer of American soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.
Other airbag manufacturers use a less volatile chemical, tetrazole. The chances of ammonium nitrate becoming problematic heighten when the material is exposed to moisture. Higher humidity or large, repeated fluctuations in temperature can cause Takata inflators to degrade, and eventually explode.
Takata declared bankruptcy last year, under the weight of debt that topped $9 billion. The Justice Department fined the company $1 billion for manipulating test data about the performance of its inflators and failing to cooperate with the government’s investigation into the airbags.
Overall, the recall has involved more than 39 million vehicles built by 19 automakers, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. More than 22 million of those cars have been repaired. But while many owners have heeded the recall warnings and had airbags replaced, 62,307 people are driving Hondas equipped with the dangerous driver-side airbag models, known as Alphas. Those airbags have a 50 percent chance of exploding — not of deploying but of exploding — after impact. Alpha recalls also have been issued for an unspecified number of 2006 Ford Ranger and Mazda B-Series vehicles.
A question to those motorists: What are you waiting for? A former Justice Department prosecutor involved in the recall effort has referred to the Alpha airbag as a grenade waiting to explode. And even for motorists whose cars don’t have an Alpha but have airbag models included in the recall, remember this: When you’re behind the wheel, the device safety experts urge you to replace is positioned about a foot from your chest.
Appearing on the market in the 1980s, airbags have a proven track record of saving lives. There’s an easy way to see if your airbag is among the dangerous ones. At NHTSA’s website, www.nhtsa.gov, input your vehicle identification number (VIN), and see whether your car is subject to the recall. If it is, hustle to a dealer. Repairs are free of charge. Knowing what’s at stake for you and your loved ones, how can you put it off any longer?