Takata Airbag Inflator Ruptures
On November 8, 2014, NHTSA called for a national recall on all vehicles containing driver-side Takata airbags with defective inflators. This defect, also affecting millions of passenger-side airbag inflators as well, is known to have been the cause of at least seven deaths and an untold number injuries in vehicles made by ten different vehicle manufacturers. Many of these injuries and deaths were caused by shrapnel created due to the explosive rupture of the Takata airbag inflator and associated housing, often in low-speed impacts. As of March 2015, recalls covering 11.5 million vehicles had been issued on various Chrysler, Ford, General Motors Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Toyota vehicles.
NHTSA’s action came eleven years after the first reported fatality due to Takata airbags, after six years of ever-expanding Honda recalls related to the defective Takata airbags, and after a failed attempt by the agency to correct the problem using geographic recalls. The first recall on Takata airbags, 08V-593, was issued by Honda in 2008 and included 3,940 vehicles. Six years and ten recall expansions later, Honda acknowledged that as many as six million vehicles contained the deflective inflators.
NHTSA’s first defect investigation into the matter, PE14-016, began on June 11, 2014, six days after NHTSA and Takata agreed via conference call to a series of service campaigns that would replace defective airbag inflators only in the “high absolute humidity” states of Puerto Rico, Florida, Hawaii, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. At the time of the agreement, Takata informed the agency that all six known inflator rupture events had taken place in Florida and Puerto Rico.
On June 25, 2014, the Center for Auto Safety released a statement regarding the NHTSA-Takata agreement, pointing out that:
The agreement totally ignores states such as Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and others with notoriously high relative humidities, not to mention Washington, DC and even Portland, Oregon which is higher than Hawaii. Without explanation, the agreement relies on absolute humidity for which records are scanty and no data are provided by either NHTSA or Takata.
Additionally, the agreement relied on the infamously problematic solution of the geographic recall (see infra at § 6:107), and allowed manufacturer service campaigns, which NHTSA would be unable to enforce as it would a recall under the Safety Act.
CAS called for a criminal investigation of Honda on October 15, 2014, citing Honda’s woefully inadequate record of reporting deaths and injuries to NHTSA in violation of Early Warning Reporting (EWR) regulations. Missing from Honda EWR submissions were a number of deaths and injuries due to Takata airbag inflators, which if reported in concordance with EWR regulations, should have tipped NHTSA off to widespread failures of Takata inflators in far less humid regions of the country.
On October 22, 2014, NHTSA issued a consumer advisory urging vehicle owners to seek recall repairs immediately to correct the airbag inflator defect. At the time of the advisory, 7.8 million vehicles had been recalled across ten manufacturers. One week later, Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman issued an information request to all ten manufacturers of vehicles containing the specified Takata airbags. This action was followed by a Special Order from NHTSA’s Chief Counsel to Takata on October 30. On November 18, after calling for a nationwide recall on all vehicles containing the suspect Takata driver’s side airbags, NHTSA issued a General Order to the ten manufacturers and a second Special Order to Takata, compelling a response by December 5.
On November 20, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a full committee hearing, “Examining Takata Airbag Defects and the Vehicle Recall Process.” The House Commerce committee followed suit two weeks later.
Through the course of both the NHTSA and congressional investigations, it was discovered that Takata had switched from a more stable propellant to the less expensive ammonium nitrate-based propellant present in the defective inflators, a compound that is sensitive to moist environments and temperature fluctuations. As the propellant breaks down over time, it becomes prone to violent combustion.
On January 8, 2015, NHTSA fined Honda $70 million for its violations TREAD Act regulations. Honda was fined $35 million for not submitting death and injury reports under the EWR regulations, and an additional $35 million for failing to submit warranty claims and customer satisfaction campaigns. In January 2015, NHTSA issued a second consumer advisory warning the owners of 2.3 million additional vehicles that their airbags must be replaced. On February 20, 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced today a $14,000 per day fine against Takata for failing to fully cooperate with NHTSA’s ongoing investigation into the company’s defective airbags. Four days later, NHTSA’s investigation PE14-016 was upgraded to an engineering analysis, EA15-001.