Latest Airbag Death Reveals Flaws in U.S. Recall System

By Alan Levin | December 29, 2015

From 2010 to 2012, Honda Motor Co. said it made multiple attempts to notify the owner of a 2001 Accord that the car’s airbag was faulty and needed replacing.

Last July, with the car sold to another person and repairs still uncompleted, the vehicle crashed in Pennsylvania and the Takata Corp. airbag shattered, fatally injuring the driver, a minor whose name was not released, according to a U.S. auto safety agency. The day before the accident, Honda had mailed the new owner yet another recall notice.

The latest fatality linked to a Takata airbag – eight have occurred in the U.S. and one outside the country, with about 100 people injured – highlights a flawed recall system that all too often fails to lead to critical repairs and can take years to complete, according to lawmakers and auto safety advocates. Meanwhile, cars can be legally sold and registered without recall fixes having to be performed.

“The identification of yet another preventable death – this time a young boy and well after when this safety defect was first made known – reiterates the urgent need for swift recall of all cars with these potentially defective airbags,” Senators Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a joint statement.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced on Wednesday the latest death suspected of resulting from airbags that can spray drivers and passengers with shrapnel. The agency also said the pace of recalls had picked up to about 2 million per month.

Seven Months

With almost three-quarters of the 19 million vehicles under the recall still unrepaired, the fixes could still take another seven more months to complete. And that may be optimistic, based on the rate of repairs in previous recalls.

On average, only about 70 percent of vehicles covered under recalls are repaired, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group. The rate for older vehicles such as those involved in the Takata recall is much lower, about 50 to 60 percent, Ditlow said.

“Not every single owner shows up the first day to get it fixed,” he said. “Some people will fit it in with their next trip for service or when they have time in their schedule. You have to get a sense of urgency in the consumer.”

Expanded Recall

NHTSA has expanded its recall to include additional models made by Subaru Co., Mazda Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., and appointed an independent monitor to oversee Takata’s response, spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said Wednesday.

“This young person’s death is tragic and it underscores why we are continuing to work so hard to get these defective deflators off the road,” Trowbridge said. “Despite the unprecedented publicity surrounding these recalls, there are still vehicles under recall with parts available for repairs that have not been fixed.”

Honda, in a statement, said it was investigating the crash in Pennsylvania and urged car owners to get their recalled vehicles repaired as soon as possible. “Our thoughts and sincere sympathies are with the family,” the company said. Neither NHTSA nor Honda identified the victim.

Takata, in an e-mailed statement, also extended condolences to the driver’s family.

‘Close Collaboration’

“We are working in close collaboration with Honda and NHTSA to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding this tragic situation,” the company said. “Takata’s number one priority is the safety of the driving public.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in an e-mail it was closed for the holidays and couldn’t respond to questions about the recall process.

Takata reached a consent decree spanning five years with NHTSA on Nov. 3, agreeing to pay fines of $70 million, fire some employees and phase out the chemical explosive linked to the failures. If the company doesn’t meet its terms, it will be subject to additional fines of as much as $130 million, which would total the largest civil penalty in NHTSA’s history.

Monitor Named

The consent decree included installing an independent monitor, to be paid for by Takata. John D. Buretta, a partner with the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and former principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice Criminal Division, has been selected for the job, Trowbridge said.

Burretta previously served as the chief of the organized crime and racketeering section of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, and on its national security unit. In 10 years with the Department of Justice he held a number of roles, including chief of staff and director of the agency’s Deepwater Horizon Task Force, which handled BP Plc’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The independent monitor has a steep uphill climb to figure this out,” Ditlow said. “People are dying.”

The senators said the pace of the Takata recall “is completely unacceptable and a massive disappointment.”

Automakers dragged their feet and didn’t report the extent of the risks swiftly enough, and NHTSA moved too slowly after it began receiving reports, they said.

A ‘Mess’

NHTSA has taken steps to speed up the recall, such as including deadlines for action in its consent order with the company, Trowbridge said. For example, manufacturers in states with high humidity, which has been linked to the airbag failures, must have enough parts on hand by March to complete all repairs, he said.

“We’ve got kind of a mess on our hands here and everybody acknowledges this,” he said. “This is not going to get done fast enough to satisfy us or, frankly, we think the manufacturers that are involved.”

Law changes that would make recall completion rates higher have consistently been fought by the industry, Ditlow said.

Congressional Action

A measure contained in transportation legislation earlier this year would have required used car dealers to perform all outstanding recalls before selling vehicles. It was taken out of the bill before it passed.

NHTSA also could push suppliers harder to make replacement parts available, Ditlow said. Some auto manufacturers have told customers they won’t be able to repair airbags on certain vehicles until the middle of 2016, Ditlow said.

“Are parts available for every single Takata recall? The answer to that clearly is no,” he said.

Motorists can check to see if their vehicles are on the recall list at a NHTSA-run website, Repairs under the recall are free.

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