Advocates Push NHTSA For Answers Regarding Airbag Recall, Remedy Effectiveness

The first major automobile recall of 2015 centered on 2.1 million vehicles containing an electronic glitch that could cause the safety devices to deploy inadvertently. While that defect is obviously a safety hazard, little else about the recall seems out of the ordinary. That is until you learn that this is the fourth time these vehicles have been recalled for this particular issue. Now, a consumer group is pushing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for answers regarding the recall, its past remedy failures, and the agency’s ability to ensure owners of recalled vehicles are safe. 

In a letter [PDF] to NTHSA, our colleagues and the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, Consumers Union raises concerns about the most recent recall and whether the measures NHTSA and manufactures take to ensure that recall remedies fully address defects are efficient.

In late January, NHTSA initiated the recall of 2.1 million Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and Honda vehicles in order to fix a possible problem with an electronic component manufactured by TRW that caused some airbags to deploy absent the event of a crash.

Affected models include: approximately 374,000 model year 2003-2004 Honda Odyssey and model year 2003 Acura MDX vehicles; approximately 750,000 model year 2002-2003 Jeep Liberty and 2002-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees; and about one million 2003-2004 Pontiac Vibe; Dodge Viper; and Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix, and Toyota Avalon vehicles.

At the time the recall was announced, NHTSA said it had received 400 reported cases of inadvertent airbag deployments in the affected vehicles after the three previous recalls had been administered. Of those reported cases, 40 were in vehicles purportedly fixed under the previous recalls in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Officials with NHTSA say the incidents have caused minor injuries, but no known deaths.

“This is unfortunately a complicated issue for consumers, who may have to return to their dealer more than once,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, said in a statement at the time of the recall. “But this is an urgent safety issue, and all consumers with vehicles covered by the previous recalls should have that remedy installed. Even though it’s a temporary solution until the new remedy is available, they and their families will be safer if they take the time to learn if their vehicle is covered and follow their manufacturers’ instructions. A hassle is much better than a family tragedy.”

While Consumers Union officials agree that the recall is a complicated issue for consumers, it asked NHTSA in a letter to provide clear answers to purported contradictions the agency has made regarding potential remedies for the recall issue.

“NHTSA says that car owners with certain airbag electronic control units manufactured by TRW and installed in recent years will need to get their cars repaired because the units may cause inadvertent airbag deployment,” the letter states. “At the same time, NHTSA has also recommended that these same parts can safely be installed as a temporary remedy in those cars that lack them. The agency has said that this remedy will significantly reduce the chance of a deployment that presents a safety risk.

“You have alerted consumers to a potential hazard in their cars and asked them to get the vehicles fixed. However, many who get repairs will leave their dealership with a defective part. How can we, as Consumers Union and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, assure consumers that this is a safe choice? What data does NHTSA have that it can share to help provide assurance to consumers that these temporary fixes are a good idea?”

The fact that the latest recall is the fourth for this particular set of vehicles raises concerns for the advocates that NHTSA and manufacturers are unable to ensure that a prescribed remedy can fully address a safety defect in the first place.

“Are follow-up steps such as on-site inspections or additional testing required to make sure that a manufacturer’s proposed fix actually works?” CU asks NHTSA in the letter. “Does NHTSA have the resources it needs to pursue such steps?”

To make matters worse for the owners of the recently recalled vehicles, nearly one million of the Toyota and Honda vehicles are also subject to the massive Takata airbag recall that began last year and has been linked to at least five deaths.

Those vehicles include the model year 2002 to 2004 Acura MDX, Dodge Viper, Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee, Honda Odyssey, Pontiac Vibe, and Toyota Corolla, Avalon, and Matrix.

Vehicles under the Takata recall may contain airbags that can deploy with enough explosive force that can send pieces of shrapnel flying at drivers and passengers, leading to injury or death.

“Will NHTSA be pushing for repairs for the current TRW defect to be prioritized for vehicles that also may contain a defective Takata airbag?” the advocates ask in the letter.

The Detroit News reports that in a recent interview NHTSA’s new director Mark Rosekind said the agency was currently planning an update related to the Takata recall.

“We are discussing right now the status of Takata,” Rosekind told the publication. “Rather than people have to ask us what’s going on, what’s going, we’re going to actually come out with some information.”

The agency did not immediately provide a response to Consumers Union’s letter.

Consumers Union seeks answers on air bag recall [The Detroit News]