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Air Bag Recall Affects Millions Of Americans


Detectives in Florida were stumped last month by what appeared to be stab wounds in the neck of a young woman following a car accident. Soon after she died, the mystery was solved. A recall notice arrived in the mail, warning that airbags in her Honda Accord could explode. It turns out her injuries were caused by shrapnel from a defective airbag manufactured by Japan's Takata Corp.

Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told owners of vehicles with the Takata airbags to, quote, "act immediately to have their airbags replaced."

With us to talk more about this is David Shepardson, Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News.

David, thanks for coming in this morning.


GREENE: So act immediately - that is really urgent. How many people, how many vehicles are we talking about here?

SHEPARDSON: It's a big number. In fact, the government expanded that population of 7.8 million vehicles late last night to 10 major auto manufacturers, including the Detroit three, Honda, Toyota, BMW. So it's a big issue and it's especially of concern to people living in high humidity states because that's where the government thinks the biggest problem may lie.

GREENE: High humidity states. OK. That makes me wonder exactly what's going on with these airbags, why they're exploding and what does the weather have to do with it?

SHEPARDSON: Right. The issue is the propellant in the airbags, the material that actually explodes the airbag into your face, you know, milliseconds after sensors detect a crash is about to happen or has happened, in some cases is damaged and as a result - and what investigators believe is that's mostly linked to high humidity areas where - so in other words, after being exposed to humidity, they're more likely to have defects and as a result rather than simply expand, send this shrapnel into passengers in the vehicles.

GREENE: So this is not part of the actual bag itself? This is like, a piece of the thing that makes the bag explode actually exploding itself and spraying shrapnel at people.

SHEPARDSON: That's right. And also metal parts of the airbag around it. So no it's - you can imagine, it's a very violent incident and it's resulted in serious injuries, as well. I mean, people having - losing eyes or serious lacerations, other cuts. So it's not anything to not take seriously, for sure.

GREENE: So if it might depend on where you live, what kind of climate you live in, if I'm a driver how exactly can I find out if my car has one of these faulty airbags and I've got to go do something about it?

SHEPARDSON: So go to your manufacturer's website or to the NHTSA website - the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - though the government's website has been having problems for the last day. And you can type in your VIN number and that website will tell you whether there's an open recall. All the recalls - with the exception of about 28,000 Toyotas were recalled on Monday - have been in place since at least June. They date back 18 months. So you can go and find out if your vehicle, through this government website - the key is for people who live in warm weather states, in fact, in the case of Toyota they're actually shifting replacement airbags away from colder states to these warm weather states. And Toyota took the unusual action of saying, you know, if you don't get this fixed, we are warning you - do not drive these cars, they're not safe. Come to our dealerships. Even if we don't have the parts, we're actually going to deactivate your passenger airbag until we have one and put a sign that says do not sit there until we have a new airbag ready for you.

GREENE: They're actually saying they'll deactivate it, they might not have the parts to replace it, but it's safer to drive without an airbag than to drive with one of these airbags?

SHEPARDSON: Which has led to some concerns from some safety advocates that say, should people should be driving a car even if there's a sign that says don't sit in the passenger seat, you know, people might actually use that seat.

GREENE: Wow. A lot of questions to be answered as this goes forward.

David Shepardson is the Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News. David, thanks for coming in.

SHEPARDSON: Thanks, David.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.