February 11, 2016
For years now, airbags have played a significant role in the crash safety systems of our motor vehicles. They have saved thousands of lives because they literally cushion people from the trauma of car accidents, preventing injury from flying glass and debris as well as injury due to hitting body parts on the inside of a vehicle during a crash. However, improperly built or installed airbags can do more harm than good. People have been hurt or even lost their lives when airbags deployed unnecessarily or with too much force, turning what would have been a minor car accident into a tragedy.
There have been millions of cars recalled in the past two years alone for a range of airbag problems, some of which have caused deaths that would not have happened otherwise. One such example is the case of Joel Knight, who died in December of 2015 when he got into a small accident. He ran into a cow while driving on a highway in his truck, and the shrapnel discharged by his airbag when it deployed hit him with the force of a bullet, killing him. It turned out that his malfunctioning airbag had been manufactured by Takata, the Japanese airbag maker who came under fire in 2015 for faulty airbags it installed in 4.89 million Hondas between 2002 and 2008. Car manufacturers Toyota and Nissan were also affected due to their use of Takata airbags, which resulted in about 33.8 million vehicles in the United States alone being recalled for airbag repairs. Takata blamed their airbag malfunction on the ammonium nitrate inflators that they use in their product, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did not issue a recall of all Takata airbags with these inflators. Thus, only 30 percent of these airbags were recalled and repaired. This means that people like Joel Knight are driving around with potentially dangerous airbags without realizing it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, car manufacturers often delay in recalling vehicles due to the time and expense involved. Indeed, it can take months to service all of the recalled vehicles if a large group of them are brought in at once, but the wait to address the problem inevitably causes injury or death to those who are forced to keep using an unsafe product. Therefore, regulators are in the midst of developing better ways to enforce the recall standards for carmakers. This includes heavily fining companies that are slow to issue recalls. The NHTSA fined Fiat Chrysler $105 million in July of 2015 for its Jeep recall addressing a leaky gas tank problem, and before that fined Honda Motor Company $70 million for its handling of the Takata airbag recalls. In an industry where money may speak loudest of all, perhaps these sorts of fines will provide the impetus towards change that injuries and fatalities alone sadly do not.