Time bomb

Why you shouldn’t wait to have your re­called Takata airbag re­placed Airbags are meant to last the car’s life, but that is be­ing called into ques­tion

Wheels (Australia) - - Redlind - BARRY PARK

AUS­TRALIA’S lethargy over the largest car-re­lated re­call in his­tory has come home to roost. A nor­mally sur­viv­able crash in sub­ur­ban Syd­ney in July in­volv­ing a Honda CR-V fit­ted with a de­fec­tive Takata airbag has left the driver dead. Po­lice are link­ing the in­ci­dent to an­other 18 known deaths in the US, and hun­dreds of in­juries. The level of vi­o­lence the crash wrought shocked po­lice: “This type of crash, in nor­mal cir­cum­stances, would not have caused this level of in­jury,” they said.

The scan­dal was first sparked in 2008 af­ter Honda no­ticed some Takata-sourced airbags fit­ted to US ver­sions of the Ac­cord and Civic, up to seven years old, would burst and spray small bits of metal and plas­tic at the oc­cu­pants they were sup­posed to pro­tect. In 2009, the first loss of life linked to the airbags oc­curred, with a US teenager bleed­ing to death af­ter the canis­ter hous­ing the airbag’s pro­pel­lant in her Honda Ac­cord – meant to in­flate the airbag – in­stead blew up, spray­ing out a deadly cloud of shrap­nel. A piece of the canis­ter lodged deep in the teenager’s neck – a sim­i­lar sce­nario to the NSW fa­tal­ity.

In Aus­tralia, the first sign some­thing was wrong sur­faced in 2010. Nis­san had iden­ti­fied sim­i­lar prob­lems with the Takata airbags in decade-old ver­sions of its Pul­sar and Y61 Pa­trol, and had started con­tact­ing own­ers to ask them to have the ’bags re­placed.

In the US, mean­while, Honda started to re­call even more cars as it dis­cov­ered even greater num­bers of faulty airbags. Soon other brands joined the grow­ing list.

The prob­lem was largely down to the way that Ja­panese airbag maker Takata was cut­ting cor­ners while pack­ag­ing its price-driven safety sys­tem. The des­ic­cant that was in­tended to pro­tect the am­mo­nium ni­trate pro­pel­lant from mois­ture can be­come in­ef­fec­tive over time, caus­ing the pro­pel­lant to both de­te­ri­o­rate and be­come more volatile. When they de­ploy, rather than burn slowly to fill the ’bag, the am­mo­nium ni­trate can re­act vi­o­lently. A chem­i­cal re­ac­tion can also weaken parts of the airbag the pro­pel­lant was in con­tact with, mak­ing them frag­ile.

The re­call has now scooped up about 100 mil­lion cars world­wide. More than two mil­lion of them are in Aus­tralia – and the list is grow­ing – af­fect­ing brands rang­ing from Ford to Fer­rari, and ve­hi­cles aged up to 17 years old. Takata, like its fail­ing airbags, is now in ruins, but has vowed to keep pro­duc­ing re­place­ment de­vices de­spite hav­ing next to noth­ing left in the bank to pay for them.

But are we do­ing enough to recog­nise the dan­ger? Honda Aus­tralia said it had tried to con­tact the owner of the CR-V in­volved in the fa­tal crash five times over a year and a half, all via mail. Of the cars here hit by the re­call, about 1.4 mil­lion are yet to have the old Takata de­vice swapped out with an­other Takatabranded airbag that it­self will need re­plac­ing in about five years.

The think­ing that airbags last the life of the car is now be­ing called into ques­tion. Steve Cooper, the gen­eral man­ager of APV Tech Cen­tre, an in­de­pen­dent crash test lab, thinks reg­u­lar test­ing of age­ing airbags will be­come more wide­spread. “I think that’s the one thing that will come out of this whole de­ba­cle,” he said.

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