Federal regulators say a faulty airbag inflator appears to have caused the death of a young driver, the ninth fatality so far linked to a system provided by Japanese supplier Takata.
The announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came as Honda announced the latest in a series of recalls involving vehicles equipped with Takata airbags. So far, close to 20 million vehicles sold in the U.S. have been targeted for safety repairs due to the use of suspect airbag inflators.
All eight of the Takata airbag deaths identified as occurring in the U.S. involved Honda vehicles. Another death was reported outside the States.
“We are working hard to understand this crash and the cause of the injuries that resulted in this fatality,” Honda said in a statement regarding the latest death. “Honda has not yet had the opportunity to inspect the vehicle, and we are coordinating with representatives of the family, NHTSA and Takata to inspect the vehicle as quickly as possible to evaluate if the Takata airbag inflator ruptured in this crash.”
According to NHTSA, the incident occurred on July 22nd near Pittsburgh. A young driver was involved in a crash while behind the wheel of a 2001 Honda Accord. The teenager was hospitalized but died several days later. A spokesman for the safety agency said the death was “likely” the result of the airbag improperly inflating.
(BMW slammed with $40 mil fine for safety recall delays. Click Here for the story.)
While a specific cause has yet to be determined, older vehicles equipped with Takata inflators have experienced an unusually high number of malfunctions in which the bags inflated over-aggressively. That, in turn, can send plastic and metal shrapnel flying into the passenger compartment.
Initially, the defect was thought linked to use in areas with high humidity. But several of the fatal incidents, including the Pittsburgh crash, occurred in areas with lower humidity.
An industry consortium has been working with NHTSA and Takata to try to understand the source of the problem, but many believe it is the result of using volatile ammonium nitrate in the inflator. Takata has agreed to switch to a more stabled chemical in the future.
NHTSA has so far ordered the recall of around 20 million older vehicles using frontal airbags powered by Takata inflators. The latest announcement by Honda involves 78,000 CR-V crossover-utility vehicles from the 2003 and 2004 model-years. Repairs will be made at no charge to consumers.
In a statement, the company said it “continues to urge owners of Honda and Acura vehicles affected by the Takata airbag inflator recalls to get their vehicles repaired at authorized dealers as soon as possible. Vehicle owners can check their vehicles’ recall status.”
(Click Here for details about NHTSA’s $175 million in fines against Fiat Chrysler.)
So far, only about 47% of the Honda vehicles covered by Takata recalls have been repaired. Including other manufacturers, however, the rate plunges to just 27%, according to NHTSA data. The vehicle involved in the latest fatality had been covered by a 2010 Honda recall but was not yet repaired. A reminder notice had been sent out the day before the crash.
“Every day an inflator remains in a vehicle means there is more risk to public safety,” NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said.
While many consumers have failed to respond to recall notices, the slow pace also reflects a shortage of replacement parts. Takata has promised to increase production, and some automakers, including Toyota, have sought out help from other suppliers.
Takata initially resisted NHTSA’s call to further expand the airbag recall this year. It later acquiesced. The embattled supplier recently accepted a consent order that included a $70 million fine. That could jump to $200 million if it doesn’t comply with steps laid out by the federal agency to address the airbag inflator problem.
On Wednesday, NHTSA announced the appointment of Cravath, Swaine & Mootre, along with former U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Buretta, to serve as an independent monitor of Takata’s safety effort.
The supplier issued a statement following word of the ninth death noting, “Our heartfelt condolences go out to the driver’s family. We are working in close collaboration with Honda and NHTSA to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding this tragic situation. Takata’s No. 1 priority is the safety of the driving public.”
Along with Honda, several other automakers expanded their Takata recalls on Wednesday. The list included 2005 to 2008 Mazda 6 sedans, and 2005 to 2008 Subaru Legacy and Outback models.
(End of the road: 20 nameplates headed for the scrapheap this year. Click Here to see which models are going, going gone.)