Washington — More than half of the nearly 42 million exploding air bag inflators recalled by auto supplier Takata have not been replaced and are still in cars on U.S. highways, posing a danger to drivers and their passengers.
Automakers say they are doing everything they can to boost repair rates for the faulty air bags linked to 13 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the United States. They say they have enough replacement parts for the free repairs and in some cases are sending teams door-to-door to track down cars.
Consumer safety advocates counter that automakers should be doing more, using all of their marketing muscle to convince owners of the danger. And they say the federal agency charged with overseeing the recall effort — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — has been without a leader since President Donald Trump took office, and is not doing all it could to make automakers accountable.
The recall of Takata Corp. air bags, which is the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history, already touches nearly 13 percent of the total number of registered vehicles.
NHTSA says only 19.6 million of the 41.8 million air bags recalled by the end of October had been repaired. The defective safety devices from the now-bankrupt Japanese auto supplier were used in 34 million cars, and the problem is expected to grow. Another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be added in the next couple of years. (Go to www.nhtsa.gov/recalls to check if your car has an unresolved recall; you’ll need the 17-character vehicle identification number located at the lower left of your car’s windshield.)
The older the cars get, the higher the risk: Over time, high humidity can cause the propellant that inflates the safety devices to become unstable and explode with too much force during a crash. That ruptures the metal inflator and throws shrapnel at drivers and passengers.
Honda Motor Co. vehicles are disproportionately represented in the recall numbers. About 17.7 million air bag inflators installed in 11.4 million Hondas and Acuras have been recalled because of safety concerns. Honda has repaired 11.4 million inflators so far.
The Japanese automaker hired 500 people to knock on doors to find owners who haven’t responded to mailings. Last month, Honda began using Facebook to track down owners and send warnings. It released an internet video featuring the testimony of a woman who nearly lost an eye when the air bag in her 2002 Civic exploded. It says it has made 150 million outreach attempts to owners.
Honda spokesman Chris Martin says the company has been using parts from other auto suppliers to make sure repairs are not slowed by Takata’s troubles. “On the parts side, we’ve been in pretty good shape for a while,” said Martin, referring to early shortages of parts that may have discouraged some owners from taking their cars to dealers.
Honda, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota have had the most air bags recalled. The companies all say they’ve made substantial progress toward repairs, but acknowledge there is much to be done.
The Takata recall is being conducted in phases that target the most vulnerable cars in humid climates in the southeastern United States. Michigan is among the lowest-priority states in the recall.
Chris Freeman, Takata campaign manager for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — which NHTSA says has about 8.7 million inflators impacted by the recall — said his company has completed 49 percent of its highest-priority repairs. He said Fiat Chrysler is confident it has enough parts to complete the required repairs.
“We’re not in any way parts-challenged,” Freeman said. “We’re not turning customers away because of any parts issue.”
Freeman said Fiat Chrysler has contracted with Uber to provide rides for drivers who drop off their cars at dealerships. He also said the company has begun doing “mobile repairs” in which technicians in vans drive to homes.
He said the lack of familiarity among American drivers with Takata has presented challenges in convincing them of the urgency of getting their cars fixed. “People don’t know and understand what Takata is,” he said. “If I said you had a Takata recall, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective as if I say you have an air bag recall.”
Victor Vanov, a spokesman for Toyota, which has about 5 million cars impacted by the recall, said the automaker has completed about 68 percent of its repairs for the top-three highest-priority groups identified by federal regulators.
“For us, we have the parts, it’s just a matter of getting folks to come and get it replaced,” he said. “We have a steady flow of parts coming in, it’s just a matter of getting customers to come in and get the repairs done, which takes less than an hour.”
Vanov said Toyota has launched an “active recall” system allowing drivers who take their cars to aftermarket repair shops to be notified of open recalls. He said the system has been installed in 25,000 locations in the U.S.
NHTSA did not respond to a request for comment.
The federal agency released a report from an independent monitor in November that found repair completion rates vary widely by manufacturer, reflecting uneven efforts on their part. Automakers with the best completion rates by the end of October included Tesla (78.6 percent of repairs completed), Honda/Acura (64.8 percent), Subaru (50.2 percent) and General Motors (46.3 percent). Those with the worst completion rates included Mercedes-Benz (2.2 percent of repairs completed), Mitsubishi (23 percent) and Mazda (27.1 percent).
The independent monitor issued a series of recommendations for automakers to boost completion rates, including pursuing different avenues in which owners are contacted at least once a month with “clear, accurate and urgent messaging in order to convey the risk these defective air bag inflators pose.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a frequent critic of NHTSA and Takata, said the federal agency will not be able to force automakers to adopt the recommendations until it has a full-time chief on the job. Nearly 11 months after taking office, Trump has still not nominated a NHTSA administrator.
“The independent monitor has provided good recommendations to ramp up a truly coordinated response to the Takata air bag recall, such as much more individually targeted outreach to drivers that still have these defective air bags in their vehicles,” Nelson said. “But no one at NHTSA is actually forcing Takata or the automakers to do these things, or even meet the fairly low recall-metrics that the agency itself established. NHTSA needs to start baring its teeth, and fining companies that don’t meet deadlines. If they don’t, this is just going to continue to muddle on forever.”
David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union and a former deputy and acting NHTSA administrator, agreed that automakers have not done enough to reach at-risk drivers, although he acknowledged the efforts of companies like Honda to go door-to-door when necessary.
Friedman said automakers should be “using the same techniques they use to sell cars” to convince drivers they are in danger.
“These companies are filled with people who are experts in how to motivate people to do things,” he said. “They know how to do this stuff. The question is, are they willing to?”