Toyota recalling 247,000 vehicles for faulty air bags

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday urged the owners of more than 4.7 million vehicles for air bags to get them repaired immediately, as Toyota Motor Corp. said Monday it is recalling 247,000 cars and trucks with air bags that could catch fire or rupture, causing potentially serious injuries.

NHTSA's top official, David Friedman, told The Detroit News in an interview Monday that the agency is in talks with numerous automakers about the issue that has been expanding in recent months. The new warning was announced to address recalls issued in 2013 and 2014, including 2.8 million from Honda Motor Co.

The recall is the latest in a string of callbacks for defective air bags made by Takata — more than 16 million since 2008 by more than a half-dozen automakers — and comes amid reports that two other deaths may be linked to faulty air bags in Honda vehicles after two previous reports of fatalities. The recall includes vehicles sold or registered in south Florida and along the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other U.S. territories. It includes the 2003-05 Pontiac Vibe assembled for General Motors Co. by Toyota at their previous joint operation in California. GM will launch its own recall for the vehicles.

Air bags from Japanese parts maker Takata Corp. have resulted in burns from explosions and cuts and serious injuries from shrapnel being sent from air bags into drivers and passengers. High humidity may result in the passenger front air bag inflators deploying with too much pressure, which may cause the inflator casing to rupture.

"We're aggressively working with all the automakers," Friedman said, saying the agency is focused on areas on high humidity as the biggest area of concern. "We're leaving no stone unturned when it comes to the risks that people are facing from these air bags." He said owners with recalled air bags need to get there air bags fixed "ASAP."

Toyota, Honda, Nissan Motor Co., GM, Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, BMW AG, Subaru and Mitsubishi among those who have recalled more than 16 million vehicles for defective Takata air bags since 2008.

Toyota took the unusual step of warning its owners not to drive their vehicles until they get the passenger air bag replaced — and said dealers would disable the air bag and place a large sign on the passenger side warning occupants not to sit in the seat until the air bag is replaced. Toyota's action was prompted by a NHTSA investigation, Friedman said.

The Toyota recall includes the 2002-05 Lexus SC, 2002-05 Toyota Sequoia, 2003-05 Toyota Tundra and 2003-05 Corolla and Corolla Matrix — though most of the vehicles were covered by a previous Toyota recall. Toyota recalled more than 2.2 million vehicles for faulty Takata inflators in June after it initially announced a recall of about 500,000 vehicles in 2013.

The new recall covers about 28,000 vehicles that weren't covered by Toyota's previous recalls in 2013 and June, spokesman John Hanson. The new recalls mean Toyota has called back about 876,000 vehicles in the United States for the issue. Toyota's letter to owners warns them not to drive the car if they don't get the air bags fixed. "We want to get people's attention," Hanson said. Toyota is shifting replacement air bags from other parts of the country to the humid areas in order to get them fixed first.

Takata spokesman Alby Berman said the company supports "Toyota's decision to assure the safety of their customers. We will continue to fully support the NHTSA investigation and our customers' recalls in every way possible moving through these processes, including ongoing detailed technical analysis and replacement parts. Our joint objective is to do all that it is possible to maximize motor vehicle safety."

The air bag recall is the latest example of how major automakers are relying on a smaller number of suppliers for key components.

"This Takata air bag issue has been simmering for years, with an ever-increasing number of vehicles being recalled and no end in sight. The massive scale of potentially affected vehicles suggests it will take years to address the danger they represent," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book's" There are only a few global suppliers for air bags, which means a single defect impacts tens of millions of vehicles. And unlike other recent, large-scale recalls, there is nothing consumers can do to protect themselves — short of never driving the vehicle until the air bag is replaced."

Friedman said in one of the two suspected Honda deaths, the air bag had been recalled — but not repaired — but the agency is still investigating. NHTSA is working with both Honda and local authorities in Florida. In one of the cases, a 51-year-old woman was killed in a 2001 Honda Accord sedan on Oct. 2 after debris from the air bags struck the driver, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Another suspected death occurred in California last year.

Some in Congress think automakers should abandon regional recalls. Automakers often limit recalls involving rust to cold weather states where lots of road salt is used — and some recalls involving high humidity are limited to warmer states. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, have introduced legislation to end regional recalls.

"This is the time of the year when many Massachusetts residents make the long trek down to Florida to spend the winter and wait until Red Sox spring training starts. But what happens to them if their car is registered in the Bay State, and not the Sunshine State, under this regional recall system? Drivers could be driving a ticking air bag time bomb, and our auto regulators won't ever tell them," Markey said Monday. "It's time to end this ludicrous policy that endangers our roads and puts lives at risk."

Automakers under pressure from NHTSA agreed to recall some vehicles in high humidity areas earlier this year, but there are still millions of vehicles on the road with the same parts. NHTSA has been investigating whether the recalls should be expanded. Friedman said NHTSA's agressive stance on recalls is an example of the "new normal" at the agency. "We had limited data, limited information but a real high risk of these air bags going off in inappropriate ways so we jumped on it," Friedman said. "We got (major automakers) to start recalls so we could better understand the extend and the significance of this problem."

In June, NHTSA said it was investigating 1.1 million vehicles from five major automakers for problems with air bags, the same day Toyota said it was expanding its 2013 recall for similar air bag issues by 650,000 vehicles. NHTSA said its new investigation is prompted by six incidents involving 2002-06 vehicles with air bag modules built by Takata in which the air bag ruptured during deployment. Exploding air bags can cause burns or other serious injuries.

The involved vehicles were equipped with front passenger air bag inflaters which could have been assembled with improperly manufactured propellent. That could cause the inflater to rupture and the front passenger air bag to deploy abnormally in a crash. In April 2013, six automakers recalled 3.7 million vehicles worldwide for air bags built by Takata that could catch fire or send metal fragments flying. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, GM. and BMW recalled vehicles linked to the faulty part.

Toyota recovered air bag inflaters in south Florida as part of two previous recalls. During testing by Takata, it found "a number of the returned inflators performed improperly during component testing."