The Takata Corporation has been developing airbags for worldwide use since 1988, starting with its first production base in North Carolina. Their airbags are used by the largest automakers worldwide.
In 2013, several automakers started recalling their vehicles due to Takata’s defective airbags. As of October 2016, 14 automakers have issued recalls of their vehicles to replace frontal airbags. Nearly a dozen deaths and many injuries have been attributed to airbag failure.
How Do Airbags Work?
Airbags are a supplementary safety system installed in vehicles, designed to help cushion rapid deceleration that occurs when a car crashes into another object. This immediate change in velocity puts passengers at risk of significant injury. When the vehicle’s deceleration is great enough, the airbag circuit is triggered, passing an electric current through a heating element. This element ignites a chemical propellant to generate a massive amount of gas, often nitrogen or argon, in the inflator. This gas then floods the airbag, providing cushion and less damage upon passenger impact.
Takata is the largest manufacturer of airbags, which can be installed in several locations within a vehicle. The most common placements include the center of the steering wheel on the driver side, and the center of the dashboard on the passenger side. Depending on vehicle design, airbags are also placed within seats and vehicle frames.
Airbags are typically used in privately-owned, consumer vehicles, however they are also made for motorcycles.
Takata Airbags Safety Concerns
Certain types of driver and passenger airbags have faulty inflators which use a propellant that can degrade over time.
Faulty Inflators Can Cause Significant Damage Upon Impact
The faulty propellant in the inflators can create airbag ruptures. When the airbags inflate upon car crash, a faulty inflator makes the risk of a ruptured airbag significantly higher than normal. Airbag ruptures have led to at least 11 deaths and more than 100 injuries in the U.S.
Research has shown that the inflators have the highest risk of rupturing in high, sustained humidity. However, this does not necessarily mean that only people who drive cars in high-humidity areas are at risk.
Takata Airbag Recalls
The first recalls of Takata airbags were announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) on May 19, 2015. Although the recall was technically a voluntary action by the Takata Corporation and its partner automakers, it came after a lot of pressure from USDOT. There were 11 vehicle brands and 34 million vehicles initially affected by the recall.
Over time, Takata and its partner automakers expanded the recalls significantly, as more problems were involved and the geographical area of the recall grew. Previously, only vehicles in areas with high humidity, such as the Southeast and Hawaii were recalled, but some vehicle manufacturers decided to expand the recall to other areas as well.
As of May 4, 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had expanded the recall to all Takata driver and passenger airbags containing nitrate-based propellants, estimated to affect as many as 68.8 million vehicles across 31 vehicle brands.
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Regulation of Airbags
Several agencies oversee airbag safety in different capacities.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The NHTSA is the regulatory body of the Department of Transportation that is responsible for regulating automakers and companies that provide vehicle components. In May 2015, NHTSA issued a Consent Order to Takata, requiring the corporation to cooperate in any future regulatory actions in the ongoing investigation. As NHTSA has investigated the scale of this recall, evidence is starting to point to Takata’s awareness years before any recalls were issued.
NHTSA also announced the beginning of a formal legal process to prioritize replacement of faulty inflators. The agency is currently prioritizing recalls in states that experience high heat and humidity year-round. By 2019, nearly 70 million airbags will have been under recall, which is the largest auto safety recall in American history.
Department of Justice
The DOJ is responsible for enforcing law and administering justice, and it gets involved in a variety of cases as necessary. The DOJ started a criminal investigation into Takata in late 2014.
Takata Airbag Lawsuits
Individuals who have been seriously injured, or lost loved ones, as a result of faulty airbags have filed lawsuits against Takata. While the company has settled in several cases, many more are pending as of October 2016.
To manage the load of lawsuits filed in federal courts, legal actions have been transferred to Florida for multidistrict litigation (MDL) hearings. Cases involving many plaintiffs with similar complaints are often transferred to a single district using an MDL to make the legal process more efficient. The justice assigned to the MDL, Judge Federico A. Moreno, has split the cases against Takata into two separate tracks: those looking for recovery of economic loss due to the airbag malfunctions (such as to cover car repairs from crashes and replacement of the airbags themselves), and those who are looking for remuneration due to personal injury – including death – as a result of airbag failures.
The MDL number for Takata cases is MDL 2599.