Government Links 10th Death to Exploding Takata Airbags

By JOAN LOWY | January 27, 2016

A Ford pickup driver killed last month in South Carolina is the 9th person to die in the U.S. and the 10th worldwide because of defective Takata airbag inflators that explode, firing off shrapnel-like shards, government safety officials said Friday, as they announced a new expansion of the largest auto safety recall in history.

Based on the South Carolina accident and tests of a different kind of Takata inflator, an estimated 5 million additional vehicles with potentially defective airbags are being recalled, but that number could change because there may be some overlap with previous recalls, said Gordon Trowbridge, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman.

The South Carolina crash occurred in late December when the driver of a 2006 Ford Ranger swerved to avoid an obstacle in the road, ran off the side and struck another obstacle, Trowbridge said. He said he was unable to provide further details of the accident.

The safety administration found out about the accident last week, from an attorney for the victim’s family, Trowbridge said. NHTSA investigators, police and family representatives examined the vehicle on Friday morning and were able to confirm the death was due to an exploding air bag inflator, he said.

A woman in Malaysia was also killed by a rupturing Takata airbag last year, the only known fatality outside the U.S. In the U.S., about 23 million Takata airbag inflators have previously been recalled on 19 million vehicles sold by a dozen manufacturers.

Despite the unprecedented size of the Takata airbag recalls, NHTSA expects the number of vehicles recalled to continue to increase, Trowbridge said. He noted that there are probably tens of millions of cars with Takata airbags on the road that have not yet been recalled.

“The agency is using all the tools available to clean up this mess as quickly and safely as possible,” he said. “We know that challenge is likely to get significantly bigger…. It is daunting.”

Officials say many of the airbag deaths and injuries have involved low-speed crashes that otherwise likely would have been survivable.

Takata uses ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that inflates the airbags in a crash. But the chemical can deteriorate under prolonged exposure to airborne moisture, causing it to burn too fast and blow apart a metal canister designed to contain the explosion.

The vehicles involved in the U.S. crashes have all spent time in humid regions. The pickup in the South Carolina crash had previously spent considerable time in Georgia, Trowbridge said.

About 1 million of the 5 million additional vehicles being recalled are cars and light trucks with airbag inflators like the one in the Ford Ranger death, Trowbridge said. Besides Ford Rangers, the recalled vehicles are likely to include a Mazda pickup truck based on the Ranger, as well some Volkswagen and Audi vehicles, he said. NHTSA is still uncertain of the makes, models and model years of the vehicles because they haven’t yet heard from all the automakers involved, he said.

Of concern is that tests were previously conducted on several thousand inflators of the type used in the Ford Ranger airbags, and none ruptured or even showed pressure anomalies that would indicate the potential to rupture, Trowbridge said.

“We may never know the reason for this rupture,” he said.

The other 4 million vehicles are being recalled because Toyota and Takata recently informed NHTSA of tests in which five inflators used in already recalled RAV4 SUVs ruptured during testing, Trowbridge said. The vehicles had all spent time in Florida. Based on the test results, NHTSA is expanding the recall to include other vehicles, including models by Mercedes Benz, Honda and BMW, he said.

The agency has fined Takata $70 million for delays in disclosing the safety defect and warned that the company could face an additional $130 million penalty if it doesn’t fulfill the terms of a consent order agreed to in November.

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