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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 22, 2015

NHTSA provides update on status of Takata air bag inflator remedy program

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Assuring the American public that the agency will utilize all tools available to it, including its enforcement powers, accelerated remedy authority, and market and communications resources to insure the safety of all drivers, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind, Ph. D. admitted during a public information meeting that there are many challenges still facing the remedy program established for replacing Takata air bag inflators that are at risk for catastrophic failure. The meeting was designed to provide the public with updated information on (1) the agency’s investigation into the cause of the air bag ruptures; (2) the current status of the remedy program and the obstacles facing completion of the program; and (3) the options the agency is considering to help consumers get a safe inflator more quickly and to address the highest risk vehicles first.

Cause of air bag ruptures. Frank Boris, NHTSA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Enforcement, admitted that the exact or root cause of the air bag inflator ruptures is still unknown. However, tests conducted by NHTSA, Takata, and engineering experts hired by the automotive industry have identified certain risk factors that contribute to these ruptures. It is generally believed that long-term exposure to environmental factors including long term exposure to high heat and high absolute humidity (HAH), have an adverse effect on inflators as they age. Thus, older vehicles that are operated continuously in areas of HAH are at the greatest risk of rupturing. In addition, NHTSA’s investigation revealed that the type of accelerant used by Takada and the way in which Takada used it was also a contributing factor.

Boris also emphasized that the risk of catastrophic failure was possible in both driver side and passenger side air bags. However, he noted that there were greater risks associated with failure of a driver side air bag. As of October 20, 2015, the agency had been made aware of 89 driver side air bag ruptures and 32 passenger side air bag ruptures. The injuries from driver side ruptures were far more serious and included broken and fractured bones, loss of eyes, loss of hearing, and cuts. Seven deaths were attributed to driver side air bag ruptures in the United States and there was a report of one death in another country. There have been no deaths reported from passenger side air bag ruptures.

Status of remedy program. Scott Young, Chief of the Vehicle Integrity Division of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, provided background on the size of the remedy program, which has been called the most complex in the agency’s history. Currently, the remedy program involves 19 million vehicles produced by 12 different vehicle manufacturers. Of the 19 million vehicles affected by the defective inflators, 4 million have both driver side and passenger side inflators that need replacement. As a result the total number of replacement inflators required to remedy cars in the United States in 23 million. Jennifer Timian of NHTSA’s Recall Management Division reported that as of October 9, 29.5 percent of the affected vehicles in the HAH region had been remedied and that only 22.5 percent of affected vehicles in other regions had undergone repair and replacement. While acknowledging that the completion rate may appear low, Timian stressed that the supply chain issues have improved and that overall completion rates were up in late September and early October. NHTSA staff also reported that the majority of the recall campaigns have been launched in the high-risk HAH region and that only a small number of recall campaigns have not started or have started only in the HAH regions.

Given the supply chain challenges and acknowledging that the current repair percentage was not good enough to address the risk to the driving public, NHTSA’s Stephen Ridella outlined the risk assessment undertaken by the agency and the automotive manufacturers in order to determine an orderly and logical process which prioritizes the high risk vehicles that should be repaired first. Those factors were identified as: (1) HAH; (2) age of vehicle; (3) presence of a driver side air bag with a Takata inflator; and (4) presence of a passenger side air bag with a Takata inflator. The more factors a vehicle possessed, the higher the risk; those vehicles were placed in Group One which included six million vehicles.

The staff also pointed out that once supply chain issues are resolved, NHTSA faces additional challenges to the completion of the remedy program. These challenges included customer apathy; the interim remedy program for like-to-like replacements which contain the same defect as the original part; and the agency and vehicle manufacturer’s ability to effectively reach consumers.

Agency options. As part of the ongoing investigation into the Takata inflators and its monitoring of the remedy program, the staff has provided a list of options for agency action that goes beyond NHTSA’s routine actions. These recommended options, which included an accelerated remedy program, are as follows:

  • Require vehicle manufacturers to speed up the remedy programs in HAH regions by getting more inflators into those areas on a condensed time schedule;
  • Monitor and discuss on a more frequent basis the problems faced by vehicle manufacturers in obtaining replacement parts and the problems faced by suppliers in manufacturing these parts;
  • Expand which facilities are able to do the remedy work beyond dealership authorized by the vehicle manufacturers (NHTSA staff cautioned that the repair process was highly complex and unique, requiring specialized training);
  • Appoint an independent third-party to assist NHTSA in overseeing the remedy program by dealing directly with vehicle manufacturers and suppliers;
  • Order Takata or vehicle manufacturers to conduct additional testing focused on the inflators used as remedy parts in order to insure that the same issue does not recur as they age;
  • Establish a proactive surveillance plan designed to determine the effect of age over the increased life-span of this technology;
  • Expand recalls as NHTSA gains an increased understanding of this complex defect and as more information is learned about the inflators used in side mounted and seat mounted air bags (SSI 20 air bags); and
  • Develop a co-ordinating message in cooperation with vehicle manufacturers that focuses on consumer awareness.

Next steps. In closing the meeting, Rosekind stressed that the investigation has been a complex problem and that NHTSA has moved quickly to identify the cause of the air bag ruptures and to implement a remedy plan. He announced that the agency plans to make a decision by Thanksgiving as to whether it will invoke its accelerated remedy authority to guarantee public safety. Rosekind also emphasized that his greatest concern was that despite the extensive media coverage, individual consumers may not have learned that their vehicles are affected or that individual consumers may not consider it worth the time or hassle to have their vehicle repaired. As a result, NHTSA is launching a national media campaign aimed at informing consumers of the importance of recalls and motivating them to take care of recalls as quickly as possible.

MainStory: TopStory MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews

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