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Death in Canada spurs probe into ARC air bags

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Regulators in the U.S. and Canada are expanding their investigation of air bag inflators manufactured by Knoxville, Tennessee-based ARC Automotive Inc. after a death was reported in Canada in a car in which an inflator exploded.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Transport Canada said Thursday they are looking into the death of a driver of a 2009 Hyundai Elantra after a collision in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. An air bag inflator made by ARC ruptured during deployment and sent metal shards into the cabin.

NHTSA estimates at least 8 million ARC air bag inflators in U.S. vehicles will be affected by the investigation. That’s the number of inflators installed in vehicles manufactured before September 2004 by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors Co., Kia and Hyundai. NHTSA said it does not know how many of the inflators have been installed since then.

The agency said it is upgrading its investigation of ARC’s air bag inflator from a preliminary evaluation to an engineering analysis. An preliminary evaluation of the faulty parts was launched in July 2015 after a pair of non-fatal accidents in the U.S. in 2009 and 2014.

NHTSA said the ARC air bag inflator that was involved in the Canadian crash was manufactured in China. The agency said Hyundai did not use the type of ARC inflator that was involved in the crash in U.S. versions of the 2009 Elantra.

The U.S. safety agency said its new investigation would focus on what U.S. cars were equipped with ARC inflators, and whether any of those inflators were made in China.

NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation last July opened the initial investigation of ARC’s air bag inflators after the agency received complaints about a 2009 incident involving a driver’s side air bag inflator that ruptured in a 2002 Chrysler Town and Country minivan.

The agency said it was also notified in 2015 of a lawsuit filed by the driver of a 2004 Kia Optima that alleged to have experienced a driver side inflator rupture.

Transport Canada said it is “in communication” with NHTSA. It said ARC Automotive is cooperating with its investigation.

ARC Automotive did not respond to a request for comment from The Detroit News on Thursday.

Hyundai said in a statement “it takes the safety of its vehicles seriously and is fully cooperating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Transport Canada to determine the root cause of the rupture and define a suspect vehicle population.”

The company added: “It is important to note that the Canadian-specification 2009 Hyundai Elantra uses a ‘single stage’ inflator, which is a different design from the ‘dual stage’ inflator used in 2009 Elantras in the U.S. market.”

The air bag recall is likely to draw parallels to NHTSA’s high-profile callback of inflators made by Japanese manufacturer Takata that were found to rupture in humid climates. Takata has nearly 70 million air bag inflators that are subject to recall.

ARC uses ammonium nitrate to inflate its air bags in a similar manner to Takata, but NHTSA said Thursday the problems with the Tennessee company’s air bag are different than issues that have been identified with the Japanese manufacturer’s parts.

“The small amount of ammonium nitrate in the ARC inflators is stored within a hermetically sealed chamber of inert gas and the moisture penetration that is a key component of the root cause of the Takata ruptures is not a factor in this investigation,” the NHTSA spokesman said.

Hyundai said “these incidents are not related to recalls of Takata air bag inflators due to the fact that they are designed differently and with different components by a different supplier.

“Hyundai does not use Takata air bags or inflators,” the company said.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said it is important for drivers to take the warnings about both ARC and Takata air bags seriously.

“The explosive nature of air bags makes any defect in their design more dangerous than most automotive components,” Brauer said. “These safety devices require a very specific, controlled explosion to protect vehicle occupants during an accident. Any malfunction during deployment can turn these life-saving devices into a liability, potentially causing injury or even death.”


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