After airbag explosions have caused "severe lacerations" and a reported four deaths, the government is urging nearly five million drivers to take "immediate action" to protect themselves against "defective" airbags. The airbags, manufactured by a Japanese auto supplier known as Takata, and sold to vehicle manufacturers, can explode in the vehicle and harm passengers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) urges owners of "certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags." The message is especially urgent for drivers in warm climates like Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands, NHTSA said.
The danger is with the internal inflator, or "the canister which sits in the center of the airbag, it's like a metal can," according to Sean Kane, an auto safety expert. "When that's ignited, it's overpressurizing the canister and the canister is exploding, much like an IED [improvised explosive device], and sending shrapnel into the occupants of the vehicle."
At the heart of the defect is a faulty propellant that is intended to burn quickly and produce gas to inflate the airbag but instead is too strong and can rupture its container, shooting metal parts into the cabin. Takata recently conducted tests on airbags that had been returned, leading to Monday's warning. The NHTSA has stressed that the warning is first targeted to owners of vehicles in areas with high humidity, like Florida.
Adding to the difficulty of recalls are used vehicles. If the car's previous owners did not received the repair, and an individual buys the car second-hand with no knowledge of the airbag's status, they are in unknown danger. There is currently no law stipulating that a used car have any recall repairs made before it is sold again.
The NHTSA lists more than 4.7 million vehicles from 11 automakers, with model years from 2000 to 2006 - in addition to the 2011 Honda Element -- that have been subject to related recalls over the past two years and urge owners to take them to their dealers.