Inflated faulty airbag in car

Faulty Airbags and Airbag Recalls

Automobile airbags are a critical advance in collision technology, but they have risks.

November 2016

When airbag maker Takata first announced in 2013 that some of its airbags could deploy improperly in car crashes, only six makes of cars were implicated in recalls. But by September of 2016, not only were 34 million vehicles in the U.S. thought to have been affected, another 7 million had been recalled worldwide for the defect, which can cause dangerous metal fragments to shoot out of airbags upon deployment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now estimates that nearly 70 million Takata inflators will be recalled by 2019. So far, the faulty airbags are thought to have killed more than a dozen people, and injured more than 100, when they deployed explosively.

More airbag companies are running into problems, too. In 2015 the NHTSA began examining airbag inflators made by airbag company ARC and used in nearly half a million Chryslers and Kias after two people were injured by airbags that deployed explosively. That investigation was upgraded this year when a Canadian woman was killed in a low-speed crash by her exploding ARC inflator. The probe has expanded to include 8 million cars.

According to the NHTSA, age might be a factor in many of these airbag problems. J.D. Power and Associates has released data that says the average car in the U.S. is 11 years old, and tens of millions are more than 15 years old; by law, they all have at least one airbag. Experts say Takata airbags, which use volatile ammonium nitrate in their inflator modules, are sensitive in hot, humid climates, but eventually break down in drier climates.

It’s possible, say experts, for even reliable airbags to break down over time. They’re recommending options that include ways to test airbags or sense possible malfunctions, or even onboard diagnostics systems that could remotely alert the manufacturer. The NHTSA is looking at advisories for car owners to replace their airbags at a set date. And federal regulators are considering new rules to mandate replacements in order to register your vehicle.

Considering the horror stories, some drivers may wonder if they should simply disable their airbags. The NHTSA advises drivers to keep their airbags—since the technology still saves hundreds of lives each year in the U.S. alone. Still, if you have concerns about your car, or don’t know if it’s part of a recall, visit the NHTSA website, which issues recall alerts and keeps a list of makes and models involved in recalls.