In 1998, the federal government mandated that airbags be included in all new passenger vehicles. Although the change was relatively recent, most of us today couldn’t imagine cars without airbags.
Unfortunately, a significant number of drivers in California and around the country are traveling in vehicles with potentially dangerous and defective airbags. Japanese manufacturer Takata Corp. recently increased its recall to include 34 million vehicles in the United States. That number equates to as many as one in every seven cars.
So far, eight deaths and more than 100 injuries in the past decade have been attributed to the airbags, which can inflate too violently and explode. And the problem causing the defect can be traced back to 2001 when Takata began using a different propellant. After moving away from an inflation ingredient called tetrazole, Takata began using ammonium nitrate.
This move was controversial for a number of reasons. First, ammonium nitrate is rather unstable and unpredictable. The goal is to use a rapidly expanding gas that won’t explode, but ammonium nitrate can’t always deliver that. Explosions can happen, and according to investigators, they have been occurring. Finally, ammonium nitrate hasn't regulated the way that other propellants are. Therefore, Takata was not bound by oversight or pre-approval in terms of how it used ammonium nitrate.
As with the General Motors recall scandal, it now appears as though Takata was aware of “serious safety and quality control lapses” as early as 2001. It’s unclear whether Takata’s alleged failure to address or acknowledge these issues will impact the company’s liability.
Airbags are a relatively simple idea, yet they provide an invaluable safety benefit – when they work correctly. When they malfunction as many of Takata’s airbags have, they can be even more threatening to life and safety than having no airbags at all.