There’s a huge airbag recall, here’s what you need to know

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In the worst kind of irony, airbags designed to save lives have malfunctioned and killed 11 people worldwide, ten of them in the United States.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a massive recall, targeting the Takata Corporation of Japan – the largest in automotive safety history. NHTSA has fined Takata a minimum of $70 million, and depending on their actions, the fine could rise to $200 million.

Thirty-four million vehicles in the U.S. are part of the recall, and another 70 to 90 million more may be added to the list if Takata is unable to prove to NHTSA that their airbags are safe.

From the beginning of the automobile, safety has always seemed to come at a much slower pace than all of the other technological advances. Maybe it’s because we’re mesmerized by speed. According to NHTSA, 32,719 people were killed in 2013. And even though the annual number has been declining, that’s a significant number.

The earliest passenger safety equipment – the seat belt – was first offered as an option on a 1949 Nash. In 1955 Ford offered seatbelts as an option. But it wasn’t until 1968 that President Lyndon Johnson signed a law mandating every new car be equipped with seat belts.

John W. Hetrick of Newton, Pennsylvania invented the airbag in 1952, and received a patent in 1953. He had been a naval engineer, and after an accident with his wife and daughter in the car he came up with the idea for an inflatable cushion to protect passengers. His system was based on an air accumulator and a release valve. But it wasn’t until 1973 that GM’s Oldsmobile Toronado offered airbags as an option. Mercedes waited until 1981 to offer airbags in their top S Class vehicle. Finally in 1998 U.S. Federal law required all new cars come with air bags for the driver and front seat passenger.

The airbag principle is simple – an accelerometer registers a sudden, rapid decrease in speed, and triggers an electrical spark which ignites a chemical reaction which creates a gas that inflates the bag in less than a quarter of a second. The leading edge of the airbag is moving at speeds from 200 to 500 miles per hour, in order to form a cushion to absorb the force of impact in an accident. The Department of Transportation estimates that between 1987 and 2012 37,000 lives have been saved because of airbag technology.

But Takata switched the chemicals used to create the explosion – choosing ammonium nitrate. (This is a fertilizer, which was also used in the bombs used in the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995.)

One problem with ammonium nitrate is that its explosive nature changes based on exposure to moisture. Reportedly, because of faulty manufacturing processes by Takata, some airbags have basically exploding upon deployment. They were subject to levels of moisture that have created a situation where the explosive force has been strong enough to send shards of metal through the bag, and into drivers and passengers.

The recall affects cars from 2002 to 2015, by these manufacturers – Acura, Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks North America (Sterling Bullet), Daimler Vans USA LLC (Sprinter), Dodge/Ram, Ford, GMC, Honda, Infiniti, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen (VW)

To see if your car is affected, write down your VIN – Vehicle Identification Number – found on the door jamb of the driver’s door and check at this government website:

If your car is on the list for recall, you should have received a letter. If not, call the dealer. Different manufacturers have different policies about providing loaners or rental cars to owners with defective airbags. NHTSA has given manufacturers until 2019 to complete the recalls. Of the 34 million vehicles recalled, just under 8 million vehicles have been fixed.

Some manufacturers, but not all, are offering free rentals while consumers are waiting for airbag recalls to be completed. (More here).