AUSTRALIA’S lethargy over the largest car-related recall in history has come home to roost. A normally survivable crash in suburban Sydney in July involving a Honda CR-V fitted with a defective Takata airbag has left the driver dead. Police are linking the incident to another 18 known deaths in the US, and hundreds of injuries. The level of violence the crash wrought shocked police: “This type of crash, in normal circumstances, would not have caused this level of injury,” they said.
The scandal was first sparked in 2008 after Honda noticed some Takata-sourced airbags fitted to US versions of the Accord and Civic, up to seven years old, would burst and spray small bits of metal and plastic at the occupants they were supposed to protect. In 2009, the first loss of life linked to the airbags occurred, with a US teenager bleeding to death after the canister housing the airbag’s propellant in her Honda Accord – meant to inflate the airbag – instead blew up, spraying out a deadly cloud of shrapnel. A piece of the canister lodged deep in the teenager’s neck – a similar scenario to the NSW fatality.
In Australia, the first sign something was wrong surfaced in 2010. Nissan had identified similar problems with the Takata airbags in decade-old versions of its Pulsar and Y61 Patrol, and had started contacting owners to ask them to have the ’bags replaced.
In the US, meanwhile, Honda started to recall even more cars as it discovered even greater numbers of faulty airbags. Soon other brands joined the growing list.
The problem was largely down to the way that Japanese airbag maker Takata was cutting corners while packaging its price-driven safety system. The desiccant that was intended to protect the ammonium nitrate propellant from moisture can become ineffective over time, causing the propellant to both deteriorate and become more volatile. When they deploy, rather than burn slowly to fill the ’bag, the ammonium nitrate can react violently. A chemical reaction can also weaken parts of the airbag the propellant was in contact with, making them fragile.
The recall has now scooped up about 100 million cars worldwide.
More than two million of them are in Australia – and the list is growing – affecting brands ranging from Ford to Ferrari, and vehicles aged up to 17 years old. Takata, like its failing airbags, is now in ruins, but has vowed to keep producing replacement devices despite having next to nothing left in the bank to pay for them.
But are we doing enough to recognise the danger? Honda Australia said it had tried to contact the owner of the CR-V involved in the fatal crash five times over a year and a half, all via mail. Of the cars here hit by the recall, about 1.4 million are yet to have the old Takata device swapped out with another Takatabranded airbag that itself will need replacing in about five years.
The thinking that airbags last the life of the car is now being called into question. Steve Cooper, the general manager of APV Tech Centre, an independent crash test lab, thinks regular testing of ageing airbags will become more widespread. “I think that’s the one thing that will come out of this whole debacle,” he said.
Cars aff ected by the Takata recall globally
Replacement airbags Takata is making each month
Estimate of cars recalled in Australia
Estimate of Australian cars yet to have airbags replaced