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Exploding Airbags is the Next Hidden Danger Lurking on the Horizon

Recently, we heard about an airbag case he was working on involving a young woman who had been severely injured in what should have been a minor car accident. The woman’s car had been bumped from behind in stop-and-go traffic. This caused her car to bump the vehicle in front of her. There was not as much as a scratch on her vehicle as a result of impact. But the car’s airbag exploded during the fender-bender. And we use the term “exploded” in its literal sense. Instead of the airbag deploying as designed, it actually exploded, propelling hundreds of shards of metal fragment with fierce velocity into the driver’s face and other parts of her body. What should have been a minor accident turned into a full-blown tragedy. The exploding airbag caused serious physical and permanent injury to the driver. We now know the exploding airbag that injured this young woman was not an isolated incident. Instead, millions of vehicles on the road today have defective airbags that can explode and cause serious injury and even death. NHTSA is currently investigation a number of vehicles equipped with Takata-brand air bags. The supplier’s bags are used by at least seven car companies on their U.S.-market vehicles. The Takata defect has resulted in the automakers recalling several million vehicles beginning in 2008 and continuing to the present. NHTSA describes the problem as bag “rupture.” The car companies describe it more like shrapnel blowing into the occupant as the defective air bag inflator deploys the air bag with too much force. The government’s preliminary investigation listed Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Chrysler Group, BMW and Toyota as being very likely to have defective bags. GM also has indicated it has similar problems. It’s quite obvious that Japan’s Takata Corp., the world’s second-largest maker of auto safety parts, is now involved in a crisis that has been building for more than a decade. The problems are just now receiving nationwide attention and they will grow further as automakers recall their vehicles. The disappointing aspect of the problem is that there was virtually no reporting of the issue. We are very interested in finding out what a number of automakers knew about Takata’s safety problems and when they knew it. Due to the previous recalls, they will have some answering to do. In order to work, air bags need to inflate in 40 milliseconds on the passenger side, according to Takata. That’s in less than half the time it takes to blink an eye. For that to happen, requires the use of powerful and potentially dangerous explosives in inflators. This requires careful handling and precise calibration. Takata uses ammonium nitrate, an explosive compound, that is volatile and highly sensitive to moisture, in its inflators. Takata has identified several manufacturing problems with its inflators, including some at a plant in Moses Lake, Wash., and at Monclova, where the ammonium nitrate was exposed to too much moisture inside the air-conditioned plant. The manufacturing glitches meant the inflator propellant could burn too fast and blow apart the metal casing surrounding it, sending out hot gas and shrapnel. Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, says it’s clear that past Takata recalls, which began in 2008, have fallen far short. Mr. Kane says, “What’s very troubling is that they haven’t resolved this thing once and for all.” Because reports on the exploding airbags problems are still coming out daily, I am not going to write much more on the subject until the August issue. Things are moving much too fast for us to keep up in this issue on the exploding airbag problem. There have been lots of recalls and there will be more covered on this subject in the August issue – stay tuned!

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