There is no end in sight for the Takata airbag crisis. As the number of recalls continues to grow, consumers and Congress grow restless, and safety advocates call for criminal prosecutions and imprisonment of top executives.
In the latest development, Honda said it is expanding its recall of late-model Honda and Acura vehicles equipped with the devices, possibly adding as many as 2.3 million vehicles to the recall list. The company told dealers of the decision last week and is expected to make it public today (Thursday).
With as many as 60 million defective airbag inflators potentially on the recall list, Takata Corp. faces an uncertain future. The staggering cost of the recalls is expected to endanger the company's future even as the plodding pace of the recall endangers the lives of consumers everytime they take the wheel. CEO Shigehisa Takada, grandson of the company's founder, may be forced to resign as the amount of money needed to carry out the recalls continues to rise, recent reports have said.
Of course, there are worse things than resigning. Going to prison is one of them -- and that's what safety crusader Clarence Ditlow says should happen. He says the grisly injuries inflicted by the defective Takata airbag inflators are the result of corporate greed and should be punished by a harsh prison sentence.
According to Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Takata decided in the year 2000 to stop using sodium azide as a propellant in its airbags and replaced it with ammonium nitrate, "an incredibly powerful explosive."
"It’s what Terry McVeigh used to bring down the government office building in Oklahoma City. It’s what a lot of terrorists in the Mideast are using in the improvised explosive devices. And so, yet this propellant that Takata used, it was known to degrade, known to explode, they put it into the airbag inflator to save, once again, a few pennies per inflator," Ditlow said in a radio interview.
Obama urged to act
In the U.S. Senate, Democrats Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) urged President Obama to recall every vehicle with airbags using ammonium nitrate as their propellant, and to use “every tool at his disposal” to accelerate the repair of all vehicles with potentially-lethal Takata airbags.
The renewed calls for action follow the December death of Joel Knight in South Carolina, who was killed when his truck struck a stray cow. Instead of cushioning the impact from the wreck, the airbag ruptured, firing shrapnel into Mr. Knight’s neck and killing him, The New York Times reported.
The senators said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "has consistently deferred to Takata," allowing some automakers to take voluntary rather than mandatory actions to recall and replace defective airbags and later by limited mandatory recalls to "high-humidity" states on the theory that the problem would not occur in low-humidity climates.
"This, coupled with NHTSA’s willingness to allow Takata to take until the end of 2018 to prove that ammonium nitrate is safe in existing airbags; and until 2019 to show that the latest models of the inflators that use the compound are safe, is an outrageous dereliction of NHTSA’s basic duty to protect consumers,” the senators said in a letter to Obama.
As of the end of December 2015, 23 million airbags in 19 million vehicles had been recalled in the U.S. Two weeks ago, Takata agreed to recall another 5.1 million inflators and Honda is expected to recall another 2.3 million today.
Most of the recalls have not yet been carried out. It's estimated that only about a third of the potentially deadly inflators have actually been replaced.