Thanks to an onslaught of scary news reports since mid-to-late 2014, most consumers have probably heard by now about the Takata airbag recall. Still, the ongoing updates about the situation leave a lot of questions. Takata is a Japanese OEM, or original equipment manufacturer– in short, the company supplies a lot of parts to a lot of car manufacturers around the world.
Airbags from Takata are being recalled because of a dangerous problem, identified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after some cars’ occupants were severely injured by airbag components in crashes. An airbag contains a part called an inflator, which does what it sounds like: In a crash, it inflates the airbag to provide a cushion to protect the occupants from impact. NHTSA found that a faulty inflator in some front airbags (on both the driver’s and passenger’s sides) might rupture in a crash, sending pieces of metal right through the airbag and into the car’s cabin. The failure is due to age and certain environmental conditions, according to NHTSA. As of this July, there have been 10 deaths and more than 100 injures attributed to the flawed airbags.
Takata is the world’s leading supplier of airbags, so when these flawed parts made it out of the factory and into cars, the negative effects were so widespread that the actual impact is, so far, still unknown. Consider this: The recalled airbags span model years 2002 through 2015 in vehicles from 31 different manufacturers. Not only are there a lot of airbags that need to be identified and replaced, that means Takata (and other airbag manufacturers) need to increase production to make enough replacements for all of the affected models. It takes a long time to make almost 15 years’ worth of replacements, especially since Takata and its competitors still need to fulfill their commitments to make airbags for new cars that are currently being built.
Largest Recall of Its Kind
According to NHTSA, this is the largest and most complicated recall of its kind. Affected vehicles can be identified by their VIN numbers, which are coded to provide information about each vehicle’s production. So far, more than 70 million vehicles in the United States and 100 million vehicles around the world have been identified as needing to have the airbag inflators replaced. The deadline for replacing the over 100 million vehicles is 2019.
Statistically, the risk of being injured by a flawed airbag inflator is minimal, since not all of the recalled vehicles actually have flawed inflators. As NHTSA says, most of the cars produced with the potentially faulty batches of airbags would still behave as intended in the event of a crash. So, if the risk is rather low, why is there so much urgency? Even though the chances are slim that these airbags will affect any given individual, we know that they’re out there and what can happen, so it’s still important to take action.
What You Should Do
If you own a vehicle from this time period, you’ve probably already received a letter from your vehicle’s manufacturer. If not, find your VIN on the dashboard and check it using NHTSA’s tool at safercar.gov.
If your car is affected, your next step is to call your local dealership. At best, you’ll get an appointment for a repair; at worst, you’ll be put on the waiting list. The waiting list is prioritized by a couple of factors. Certain makes and models have been identified as posing a more serious risk, and those vehicles get priority. Residents of certain areas also get priority, because the airbag inflators are known to degrade in certain weather conditions, increasing risk of failure. The waiting list is long; out of the estimated 70 million cars in the U.S., only 8 million have been replaced as of this summer, and experts expect it to take at least two years to fix all 70 million.
If you own a 2015 or 2016 vehicle from the named manufacturers, be vigilant; there’s a long list of vehicles from these years that use the affected Takata airbag inflators, but the inflators aren’t yet old enough to be considered a threat (the risk increases as the component ages and degrades) and therefore aren’t part of the official recall. These vehicles will be identified in another wave of recalls due by 2018, though it’s better to be aware of it now so you can get your car updated as soon as possible.
Used Cars With Takata Airbags
If you’re thinking about buying a car that has an active Takata airbag recall, you should be aware that NHTSA’s website about the Takata situation doesn’t recommend a specific course of action for this scenario, and also that there’s no federal law preventing used car dealerships from selling vehicles with open recalls. In other words, whether you’re buying from a dealership or a private party, it’s buyer beware. Honda, however, has proactively ordered its dealerships to stop selling certain used Hondas and Acuras until they’re repaired, so shoppers might have better luck finding a repaired vehicle amongst those brands. Due to the scope of the Takata recall, it’ll be very difficult to simply avoid buying one of the affected models. If you must buy an affected car, get it on your dealership’s waiting list immediately.
In the meantime, consumers can take steps to minimize the risk of injury from the Takata airbags. According to Consumer Reports, NHTSA’s VIN lookup might let you know that only the passenger-side airbag in your car is affected, and in that case, you’ll be fine if you don’t let anyone sit there – if there’s no one in the seat, the airbag won’t deploy in a crash. Otherwise, all you can do is reduce your risk of a crash by reducing your driving. Carpool or take public transportation whenever possible. Your airbag will be fine as long as you don’t crash, but the only way to guarantee that is to avoid driving. And that leads us to our final point – although Toyota has recommended disabling airbags in its vehicles as an interim fix, NHTSA disagrees with that solution, since crashing with an airbag is still statistically safer than crashing without one.