The Takata airbag controversy has been a litany of cover-ups and inaction. Airbag recall - Is your car affected?
The Takata airbag controversy has been a litany of cover-ups and inaction. Airbag recall - Is your car affected?

Horrible 17-year secret behind airbags car recall

IT'S the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters: Multinational discovers a potentially fatal flaw in its product but takes more than a decade to come clean, costing innocent lives.

The Takata airbag cover-up proves that truth can be stranger than fiction.

US safety regulators first became aware of potentially deadly problems with Takata airbags in 2001, 17 years ago.

Since then 23 people have died and hundreds more have been injured due to a deadly combination of corporate cover-ups, slow-moving authorities and car makers' reluctance to be drawn into a damaging and expensive saga.

The first complaints about rupturing airbags were made 17 years ago. Picture: Joe Raedle, Getty Images
The first complaints about rupturing airbags were made 17 years ago. Picture: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

As early as 2001, customers in the United States filed complaints about airbags rupturing in their vehicles.

Then in 2004, according to a New York Times report, an airbag exploded in a Honda Accord in the United States, injuring the driver.

Honda and its airbag supplier, Takata, dismissed the incident as an anomaly but privately, according to the NYT, Takata began carrying out secret after-hours tests on airbags recovered from scrapyards.

Takata allegedly conducted secret tests on its faulty airbags. Picture: Paul Sancya, AP
Takata allegedly conducted secret tests on its faulty airbags. Picture: Paul Sancya, AP

Employees told the paper those tests found cracks in the airbag firing assembly, but after three months of testing the program was shut down and staff were ordered to delete the results from their computers and dispose of the airbags.

Takata says it didn't discover any defects until 2008 and initially told Honda it had traced the problem to incorrect handling of the airbag assemblies on the plant floor, which had exposed the airbag propellant to moisture.

It was the first indication of two serious issues with the airbags. First, they were susceptible to moisture intrusion and, second, the propellant they used to inflate the airbag - ammonium nitrate, the same explosive used in the Oklahoma truck bombing in 1995 - became dangerously volatile when exposed to moisture. There was also speculation that airbag modules carried on leaking delivery trucks could get wet in transit.

The airbag inflator was susceptible to water intrusion. Picture: Jens Meyer, AP
The airbag inflator was susceptible to water intrusion. Picture: Jens Meyer, AP

The results of a deteriorating airbag mechanism were horrific. If it ruptured, shrapnel would explode into the cabin with potentially deadly results. Police who attended the scene of one of the accidents initially thought the victim had been murdered, such was the severity of the injuries.

Yet it wasn't until 2008 that the first recall was announced by Honda. The numbers were paltry: 4000 cars were said to be affected, compared with more than 100 million vehicles now on the recall list. Honda told authorities at the time it had identified all vehicles that could experience the problem. It didn't tell them that people had already been injured.

Takata failed to alert other car makers of the extent of the problem, delaying recalls that could have saved lives. It continued to come up with excuses that limited the problem to issues on the plant floor or in the delivery process.

Takata initially blamed the problem on plant issues. Picture: AFP
Takata initially blamed the problem on plant issues. Picture: AFP

Six months after the first recall, a Florida woman was seriously injured by shrapnel when her Honda Civic's airbag ruptured. Then in May 2009, Oklahoma teenager Ashley Parham was killed when her airbag shot metal fragments into her neck. Honda and Takata denied fault but settled out of court.

Later that year, Gurjit Rathore bled to death in front of her three children after her Honda Accord's airbag exploded in a low-speed accident.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an inquiry into the airbags in 2009 but closed it due to lack of conclusive evidence.

Over the next couple of years Honda expanded its recalls, but it wasn't until 2013 that other makers - Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and BMW - were drawn into the recall.

In 2014, the NHTSA opened another investigation, focusing on whether cars in humid climates were susceptible to moisture in the mechanism. At the time, Takata continued to maintain there was no evidence to suggest defects.

Some of the injuries from exploding airbags have been horrific. Picture: Susan Walsh, AP
Some of the injuries from exploding airbags have been horrific. Picture: Susan Walsh, AP

More deaths followed that year and a class action filed in Florida accused Takata and some manufacturers of concealing crucial facts.

Then the NYT's damning report prompted some politicians to call for a criminal investigation. Eventually, a US Senate hearing was launched. Takata maintained it couldn't find the cause of the ruptures and said the NYT article was "fundamentally inaccurate". Politicians accused car makers of being slow to react to the growing crisis. At Congressional hearings, Takata executive vice president Kevin Kennedy claimed ammonium nitrate was safe to use but admitted the company was moving to another propellant.

A Takata airbag inflator after it was removed during a recall service. Picture: Jeff Kowalsky
A Takata airbag inflator after it was removed during a recall service. Picture: Jeff Kowalsky

Car makers and rival airbag manufacturers were less circumspect, with many industry experts questioning Takata's use of the volatile propellant. Others also noted the propellant had no anti-moisture agent. The NYT cited internal reports that warned of "aggressive ballistics" from the compound.

Despite the growing number of affected vehicles and evidence there was a fundamental design flaw, Takata didn't increase its capacity to supply replacements until early 2015. The Japanese maker was eventually fined for allegedly refusing to co-operate with a US federal investigation.

TAKATA AIRBAG RECALL: What to do if your car is on the list

Car manufacturers have begun dumping Takata contracts due to the airbags flaw and cover-up.
Car manufacturers have begun dumping Takata contracts due to the airbags flaw and cover-up.

Honda, Takata's biggest customer, severed ties with the supplier in 2015, claiming it had become aware of evidence suggesting Takata had manipulated test data. The Wall Street Journal reported internal Takata communications showed the company withheld information about airbag failures from Honda in 2000.

Toyota, Mazda, Ford and Nissan soon followed Honda's lead.

In February last year, Takata eventually pleaded guilty to fraud for covering up the defects. The previous month, it reached a $US1 billion ($A1.29 billion) settlement with the US Justice Department.

Customer apathy has also played a role in the crisis. A survey of US owners in 2015 found that only 12 per cent of faulty airbags had been replaced. The story is similar in Australia, where car makers have gone to extraordinary lengths - including hiring private investigators - to convince customers to fix their vehicles. Some customers have refused to have their vehicles fixed and told investigators not to contact them again.

So far, only 63 per cent of affected cars have been fixed in Australia, and 2.3 million drivers still have defective airbags in their vehicles.



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