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Fixing Airbag Problems

A new ‘safety record’—of sorts—was set in 2015.  The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently reported that the almost 900 separate recalls affecting over 51 million vehicles last year beat the 2014 record of 803 separate recalls.

One reason for the increase: the millions of dollars in fines levied against Fiat Chrysler, General Motors and Takata Corp., the airbag manufacturer, for their tardiness in reporting safety problems seems to have motivated them to act faster, even where smaller numbers of vehicles are affected.

Another reason offered by NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind is the re-doubling of efforts on the part of the NHTSA to spot defects faster.  “But,” he says, “identifying defects is not enough; we have to make sure they get fixed.”

Takata airbag inflators have played a big role in this record-breaking year.  The inflators are metal cartridges loaded with propellant wafers.  Exposure to moisture over time seems to be the cause of their otherwise unprompted explosion propelling shrapnel into the vehicle interior.

At least 11 people reportedly have died worldwide from the problem, and 139 have been injured.  In the US, about 23 million Takata inflators have been recalled on 19 million vehicles sold by 12 auto and truck makers.  Government forecasts of more Takata recalls were promptly confirmed in late January when Ford announced expansion of its ‘Takata’ recall after an inflator exploded in a Ford Ranger in December 2015 killing the driver.  Ford’s January 26th recall includes 391,354 Ford Rangers, model years 2004 to 06 — 361,692 of which are in the US, and 29,334 in Canada.

Hard on the heels of the Takata problem, Continental Automotive Systems, in documents filed with the US government has reported that moisture inside its airbag control computers may corrode the power supply resulting in the airbags failing to inflate in a crash or deploying without a crash.  Continental says the problem first surfaced in January 2008 when it analyzed a malfunctioning control unit that was removed from a Mercedes. Investigations continued as incidents occurred in subsequent years.

Documents, posted February 4, 2016 on the NHTSA website say that the Continental recall will extend to cars dating as far back as 2006.  Honda, Fiat, Volkswagen, and Mercedes have already issued these recalls; some unidentified Mazda and Volvo Truck vehicles are also included. Continental says this recall will extend to up to five million vehicles worldwide, less than two million of which are in the US.

It is reported that on average, within 18 months of a recall, 25 per cent of the vehicles covered remain unrepaired.  In late January, the NHTSA launched a new public awareness campaign called Safe Cars Save Lives that “urges consumers to check for open recalls at least twice a year and to get their vehicles fixed as soon as parts are available.”

Automakers are currently required to notify owners by first class mail.  More ‘modern’ methods of owner notification —text messaging, email, social media are all being developed by the NHTSA as better ways of contacting owners and motivating them to respond.

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