Why Is Subaru Telling Me To Keep People Out Of The Passenger Seat For The Next Year?

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

For the better part of two years, carmakers have been notifying owners of vehicle included in the massive shrapnel-shooting Takata airbags recall. Given the sheer volume of and airbags involved, it’s understandable that not all repairs can be done right away, but some drivers are finding out that they may not only have to wait a year for the fix, they shouldn’t have anyone else in the front seat with them during that time.

Reader Henry tells Consumerist he recently received a such a recall notice [PDF] concerning his 2009 Subaru Forester.

The notice alerted Henry that the passenger side frontal airbag could be defective, but that a new part for the vehicle would not be available until March 2018. Oh and by the way, he was instructed not to drive with a passenger in the front seat.

According to the recall notice [PDF] posted with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled by Takata. In the event of a crash necessitating the deployment of the safety devices, the inflators may rupture with enough force to spew pieces of metal at occupants.

For those unfamiliar, Takata’s airbag inflators use an ammonium nitrate propellant. If the device is exposed to humidity and related temperature swings over a period of time the chemical can combust violently, rupturing the inflator when the airbag deploys in the event of a crash.

While the recall notice Henry received isn’t out of the ordinary for carmakers affected by the Takata recall, he was concerned by the year wait for parts and the directive not to allow someone to occupy the passenger seat for that period of time.

“This is not acceptable,” Henry tells Consumerist.

Why The Long Wait?

Henry isn’t alone in waiting for his vehicle to be repaired; millions of consumers have already received notice that their cars are affected by the defect, but unable to be fixed at the moment.

This is because of the large nature of the recall and the tens of millions of new inflators needed. To address the massive campaign, NHTSA issued a consent order in November 2015 that outlined the handling of the recall, breaking repairs into prioritization groups [PDF].

The groups were created [PDF] based on risk factors such as age, geography and climate, inflator position — whether it was in the driver’s side or passenger side — and precession of two recalled inflators.

“Regardless of these circumstances, every defective air bag inflator must be — and will be — replaced,” NHTSA says on its Takata recall website. “We ask for your understanding while the air bags that pose a higher risk to their vehicle’s drivers and occupants are replaced first.”

That first group, deemed to have a much greater risk of rupturing, includes vehicles with older inflators that have experienced prolonged exposure to hot and humid conditions. This did not include Henry’s 2009 Forester.

Instead, his vehicle is included in the third priority group, a rep for NHTSA tells Consumerist. As part of the agency’s coordinated remedy action, manufacturers of vehicles in priority group 3 are the last slated for repairs.

NHTSA has amended its coordinated remedy program several times as more vehicles have been identified as being affected by the Takata defect. While the earliest version of the order required vehicles in the third group to be fixed by Dec. 31, 2017, later versions moved the completion dates to as far out as 2019.

“NHTSA is prioritizing Takata air bag repairs to ensure that vehicles with air bags that pose a higher threat to safety are fixed first while simultaneously working to ensure that parts are available to repair every affected vehicle as quickly as possible,” a rep for the agency tells Consumerist.

Despite the slow-moving repairs, NHTSA has urged all manufacturers affected by the recall to make customer safety their number one priority.

Don’t Sit There

That’s perhaps why Subaru directed Henry and others not to haul around passengers behind the defective Takata airbag.

The notice Henry received not only describes the Takata issue in his Forester, but directed him and other owners not to allow others to sit behind the defective airbag.

“Until this repair is performed, do not allow passengers to ride in the front passenger seat,” the notice states in bold lettering.

A rep for Subaru tells Consumerist this isn’t an unusual directive, as other carmakers have issued similar warnings.

“This is a typical situation for all makers with Takata bags,” the rep said. “The driver bag in a Subaru is not Takata where other makers have both driver and passenger.”

For instance, in 2014, Toyota urged owners of some vehicles to keep passengers out of the front seat until repairs could be made.

That recall [PDF] involved vehicles in high humidity areas, which had been deemed the most susceptible to dangerous ruptures.

Toyota said at the time it would disable affected airbags and advised customers not to use the front passenger seat until a replacement inflator is installed. NHTSA has since advised against disabling the airbag.

“It is far more likely that, if you are involved in a crash, your airbag will perform properly and protect you than it will rupture and cause harm,” the agency says on its Takata website. “An airbag that is purposely disabled has a 100% chance of failing to provide any protection in a crash.”

As for Subaru, the company is erring on the side of caution with its warning, adding that it’s not a “perfect situation,” but “at least with Subaru we can say it’s safe to drive the vehicle until the repair.”

Few Alternatives

Except you’ll be driving around alone, or like a chauffeur with your passengers in the backseat. Of course, that’s not always a viable option, you know, if you have a family of five or planned a road trip with a group of your friends.

If you can’t avoid driving around with a car full of people, you essentially have two options: continue driving or get a rental/loaner.

NHTSA notes on its Takata recall FAQ page that the vast majority of Takata air bags will perform as expected. This suggests that you could take your chances driving around in the vehicle.

But if you “don’t feel uncomfortable continuing to drive your vehicle before the recall repair has been performed on your vehicle, you should contact your dealer and ask for a loaner until an interim or a final repair is completed,” NHTSA suggests.

However, a rep for the agency tells Consumerist that it is completely up to the carmaker’s discretion whether or not to provide a loaner vehicle to owners affected by the recall.

In fact, dealers and manufacturers are not required to provide you a loaner car, but it can never hurt to ask.

According to Subaru’s notice to Henry, owners who can’t avoid driving others around in the passenger seat should reach out to the carmaker for alternative options. This could include a loaner vehicle.

A rep for Subaru tells Consumerist that the carmaker has “limited loaner vehicles for special situations.” The company did not provide specifics on what a “special situation” constitutes.

What You Can Do

As of March 31, NHTSA says that 14.35 million Takata airbags have been replaced under the recall campaign. Of those, 7.5 million were located on the driver’s side, while 6.85 million were passenger-side airbags.

As for Subaru, NHTSA says 27.58% of recalled airbags have been fixed, that’s a total of 309,862 passenger-side airbags.

To find out if a vehicle is affected by the recall owners are urged to enter their individual VIN on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Safercar.gov/vin database.

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