Takata Corp., under pressure from safety regulators, has agreed to declare 33.8 million air bags defective, doubling the number of cars and trucks affected and making this the largest auto recall in U.S. history.
The problem is that the chemical that inflates the air bags can explode with great force, blowing apart a metal inflator and sending shrapnel into the passenger compartment, Newsday reports. Thus far, the faulty air bags are responsible for six deaths and more than 100 injuries worldwide.
This week’s agreement adds more than 18 million air bags to existing recalls and covers both passenger-side and driver-side air bags. Earlier recalls of passenger-side air bags were limited to cars in high-humidity states along the Gulf Coast, but the recall is now nationwide and 10.2 million additional vehicles are included, according to Newsday. The recall of driver’s side air bags was expanded by an additional 7.9 million vehicles.
“We know that owners are worried about their safety and the safety of their families,” said Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “This is probably the most complex consumer safety recall in U.S. history.”
Takata has fought with regulators for a year over the cause of the problem and how many vehicles should be included in the recalls, and even questioned NHTSA’s authority to order a recall.
Eleven automakers, including Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., use Takata air bags. The automakers and Takata will have to determine which vehicles are covered by the expanded recalls. NHTSA said the number of affected air bags could continue to climb, according to Newsday. Worldwide, 36 million vehicles had been recalled because of the air bag problem.
Since late February, Takata had been accruing fines at the rate of $14,000 per day for failing to fully cooperate in the investigation. The fine totaled more than $1.2 million before it was suspended on Tuesday when the recall agreement was announced, NHTSA said. But Newsday says other civil penalties are still possible.
Rosekind said NHTSA and the auto industry are still trying to determine why the inflators explode. Takata’s air bags use ammonium nitrate to inflate the air bags in a crash. But the chemical, which can be used to make bombs, is unstable. Testing has found that moisture in the air can get into the inflators and cause the ammonium nitrate to burn hotter than it should. Rosekind urged car owners who get recall notices to immediately make an appointment to get the car fixed, according to Newsday.
There are not enough replacement inflators available for all the recalled vehicles and it will take months or longer before Takata can manufacture all the needed inflators. NHTSA said inflators would be allocated first to older cars and to high-humidity areas, where owners are most at risk.
Owners can enter their vehicle identification number at https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/ to see if the car is part of the recall. The number is stamped on the dashboard near the windshield on the driver’s and can also be found on the vehicle’s registration documents. It may take weeks before all the identification numbers are entered into the database.