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Lowry: Takata Corp. airbag recall reflects larger problems

A company that built its reputation on safety has, at best, ignored signs of the dangers of its product or, at worst, deliberately covered up those dangers.

Tokyo-based Takata Corp. is about to learn a costly lesson about what happens when lives are sacrificed to save a few dollars. It’s no secret a recall can cost a manufacturer millions of dollars to enact. Some manufacturers take the dangerous gamble to avoid or delay a recall of a product, knowing the product poses a hazard to the public.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released a statement recalling millions of vehicles and asking owners to “act urgently” to replace defective airbags, particularly those who live in high humidity areas like coastal Georgia.

Under fire are faulty airbags produced by Takata, which have been linked to at least three deaths and more than 100 serious injuries. Injuries and death occur when the airbags spray metal and plastic propellant canister debris when inflated during vehicle impact. Over the past decade, these airbags have been installed in Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles.

In October, 51-year-old Orlando resident Hien Tran became the most recent victim, as shrapnel flew into her neck following a collision, creating stab-like wounds that led to her death. Since 2008, more than 16 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide as part of what many analysts believe could be the biggest automotive recall in history.

However, the problem is even bigger than the auto industry or Takata is willing to admit. This recall has now expanded beyond high humidity areas of the country to a nationwide recall by order of federal regulators.

The Takata airbag defect reflects larger problems in the auto industry, which unfortunately is slow to react when a problem emerges, often putting cost above customer safety. An investigation by The New York Times in September shows Takata was initially alerted about the faulty airbags as early as 2004. Takata even covered up crash tests dating from the early 2000s that demonstrated the shrapnel caused by some of its ignition canisters during a collision.

Despite knowing the instability of its ammonium nitrate compound used to ignite the airbags, especially when exposed to heat or moisture, and despite knowing of problems it had in its plants based in Mexico and Washington State, Takata did nothing.

Subsequent delays by auto manufacturers kept dangerous airbags on the road, resulting in additional injuries and fatalities.

In fact, the Takata airbag debacle is the latest failure of the automobile industry to place consumer safety first.

Under pressure from Congress, there has been an initially aggressive, although not comprehensive, push to recall more than 50 million cars in the U.S. this year.

The problem with the recalls related to the Takata defects is that neither Takata nor the affected auto manufacturers have enough parts to implement a broad enough recall. This is causing millions of people to continue to drive in vehicles with unsafe airbags.

Some dealers and manufacturers, in Japan specifically, have taken the step of disengaging the airbags. This could still be problematic as today’s front seatbelts are designed to work together with the airbag for full restraint.

Additional vehicles will be recalled due to the Takata airbag defect, so it’s important for consumers to be vigilant about monitoring the status of the recall. If you believe you may own one of the recalled models, visit www.safercar.gov or your vehicle manufacturer’s website to search by vehicle identification number (VIN).

Call your local dealer to find out whether your vehicle is affected by the latest round of recalls. Ask questions and find out what can be done to resolve the problem in your vehicle.

If your car or truck is recalled, be sure to schedule an appointment for an airbag replacement immediately. There is no cost to the consumer, but the part may need to be ordered in advance.

Plus, Honda, Takata and others currently do not have enough parts to repair all the vehicles that have been recalled in the U.S. A number of U.S. senators, unsatisfied with this response, are pressuring manufacturers and dealerships to provide loaner cars to customers.

It’s important that consumers demand action from the auto industry and from federal regulators so auto manufacturers take responsibility and put safety before profit. Your life and the lives of your loved ones may depend on it.

 

Stephen G. Lowry is a partner with the law firm of Harris Penn Lowry LLP. He and his law firm handle numerous defective product claims. He can be reached at steve@hpllegal.com or 912-651-9967.

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