Originally published on November 11, 2014, at NationofChange.org
As federal agencies launch investigations into Takata Corporation’s exploding airbag malfunction, two former employees are accusing Takata executives of possessing prior knowledge of the defective airbags and covering up the evidence back in 2004. The faulty airbags have been responsible for at least four deaths and 139 injuries. Although Takata executives blame degrading propellants in humid regions for these fatalities, Takata’s lax quality control standards and corporate greed also play major factors.
After an airbag exploded in Alabama in May 2004 firing metal shards into the ’02 Honda Accord’s driver, Takata conducted a series of secret tests to determine the cause of the explosion. Under the supervision of Al Bernat, then Takata’s vice president for engineering, 50 airbags were discreetly tested after work hours and on weekends and holidays during the summer of 2004 at Takata’s American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Although lab technicians found two cracked steel inflators during three months of clandestine testing, Bernat disregarded their results and ordered the technicians to stop the tests, destroy all of their data, and dispose of the evidence in the trash.
Takata reported to Honda that they were unable to find a cause for the exploding airbag. Honda accepted Takata’s assertion that the explosion was an anomaly and settled a claim with the injured driver. Honda also filed an early warning report with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). According to regulatory findings, Takata claims they did not perform diagnostic tests on the defective airbags until 2008.
To reduce both size and the toxic fumes that prior airbags often emitted when deployed, Takata redesigned the airbags in the late 1990s by igniting pellets of a propellant based on ammonia nitrate to generate enough nitrogen gas to inflate the airbag in a fraction of a second. Encased within a metal canister, the propellant degrades with exposure to moisture in humid areas. According to Takata, the degradation can rupture the inflator firing metal fragments into the driver or passengers.
The first reported death caused by Takata’s exploding airbags occurred inside a school parking lot in Midwest City, Oklahoma, in May 2009. Eighteen-year-old Ashley Parham had been picking up her brother from football practice when she accidentally hit another car at slow speeds. As the airbag of her ’01 Honda Accord deployed, a metal fragment severed her neck. Honda filed another early warning report to the NHTSA.
On December 24, 2009, Gurjit Rathore had been driving her three children when her ’01 Honda Accord accidentally collided with a U.S. Postal Service truck in Virginia. As her airbag deployed, a piece of shrapnel stabbed her in the throat. While the airbag deflated, it pulled the shard out of her neck leaving the driver to bleed to death in front of her children. After filing a lawsuit against Honda, the Rathore family received a $3 million settlement.
In September 2013, Hai Ming Xu drove his ’02 Acura into a wall in Alhambra, California, causing the airbag to deploy. Metallic fragments exploding from the airbag struck Xu in the face and killed him. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. According to case lawyers, Honda did not file another early warning report to the NHTSA.
On September 29, Hien Tran had been driving home in the rain in Orlando, Florida, when she crashed her ’01 Honda Accord into a Dodge sedan. Her airbag deployed puncturing her throat with metal shards. Hien remained in intensive care until she passed away on October 2. A week after Hien’s death, her twin sister, Tina Tran, received a recall notice from Honda urging Hien to bring her Accord in for service due to faulty exploding airbags.
Because they do not possess enough parts to immediately repair the defective cars, Honda only sends out recall notices as parts become available. Regions with high humidity have taken priority. In some cases, Toyota stated they would disable the airbags until replacements can be located.
In June, the NHTSA announced that possible safety defects with Takata’s airbags had triggered recalls by BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Subaru, and Toyota. In November 2009, the NHTSA opened a brief investigation into Takata’s exploding airbags. Six months later, the NHTSA swiftly closed the inquiry before Takata provided all relevant documents. The NHTSA has reopened its investigation, a House committee has asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an independent investigation, and federal prosecutors in New York have also taken notice.
Senators Richard Blumenthal, Edward Markey, and Claire McCaskill have called for a criminal inquiry into Takata’s actions. Sen. McCaskill, who heads the product safety subcommittee, has called similar hearings earlier this year over General Motors’ failure to disclose knowledge of defective ignition switches responsible for killing at least 29 people. The faulty ignition switches caused the engine to turn off while driving, disabling the steering wheel, brakes, and airbags.
As Takata won contracts with major clients like General Motors through the early and mid-2000s, they struggled to keep up with the surge in demand for airbags. Along with quality control failures in production and distribution, Takata’s facilities often refused to take back any airbag modules that became wet or damaged during transit. Fear of losing lucrative contracts pushed Takata to abandon proper quality control measures and possibly commit criminal neglect.
The U.S. auto industry and federal regulators have recalled over 50 million vehicles this year. The previous record was approximately 30 million recalls in 2004.