It’s been more than ten years since faulty airbags made by Japanese automotive supplier Takata started to be recalled, yet we aren’t through remedying these potentially fatal defects. In fact, millions of faulty supplementary restraint systems are still in cars on the road today, which means it’s time we took another look at this series of massive automotive recalls.
First, a bit of backstory: Airbags are expensive, and Takata dropped the ball on quality control, as admitted to Reuters in 2014. The firm claimed it stored chemicals improperly, did not consistently follow proper manufacturing procedures, and in one case, kept substandard quality control records. However, that’s not the only cause of Takata’s woes. According to an internal report, the non-desiccated ammonium nitrate used as an oxidizer in many Takata airbags seems to be affected by environmental humidity over a period of many years, to the point where the explosions that fire affected Takata airbags can become unstable, potentially sending shrapnel hurtling towards the driver or other vehicle occupants. Sort of like a Claymore, except with the front towards you.
As of early 2021, NHTSA reported that some 17 million recalled inflators were still at large. However, two years have passed since that update, so I decided to drill down and see what updated data manufacturers can provide. It turns out that the Takata problem is still bigger than most people realize, with millions of affected vehicles that still haven’t been booked in for recall work.
BMW claims in a recent press release that around 90,000 2000-2006 E46 3-Series, 2000-2003 E39 5-Series, and 2000-2004 E53 X5s still need their faulty Takata airbags replaced under recall. Likewise, Honda reports that as of April 7, roughly 1,041,600 of its vehicles affected by Takata airbag recalls still need to be brought in for recall work. In late 2022, Stellantis reported that roughly 276,000 owners of 2005-2010 Chrysler 300 sedans, 2005-2010 Dodge Charger sedans, and 2005-2008 Dodge Magnum wagons still need to take their vehicles in for free Takata airbag replacement.
Toyota claims that it’s still attempting owner outreach on 602,304 affected vehicles via snail mail, email, and telephone. Toyota also publishes figures on the success of these outreach campaigns, and they paint a troubling tale. The email response rate between Sept. 1, 2022 and Feb. 28, 2023 was a shocking 0.27 percent. Between September of 2019 and February of 2023, Toyota made 8,570,569 phone calls to numbers associated with affected vehicles. Of all outcomes, 34,547 owners already had the recall work done, 19,719 were booked in for recall work by a Toyota agent, 23,652 were transferred to dealerships, and 65,831 customers claimed they’d schedule the work on their own. Being extremely optimistic and assuming that all of these selected outcomes resulted in recall work being performed, that would potentially result in a remedy rate of 1.67 percent. Mailers had a fairly similar remedy rate of 1.62 percent.
Keep in mind that this is just data from four manufacturers, and it adds up to more than two million cars. The Takata scandal was far-reaching, affecting just about everyone who made cars over the past two decades other than Kia and Hyundai. From market mainstays like Nissan and Chevrolet to niche offerings like Saabs and McLarens, there could easily be millions more vehicles on the roads with faulty Takata restraint equipment.
The cost of replacing these airbag inflators is essentially nothing. You might be out a few dollars of gas used to reach your local dealership and maybe an hour of your time dropping off and collecting your car, but that’s it. The repairs themselves are free and dealerships offer shuttle services or, sometimes, loaner cars so you can still continue about your day. Believe me, my 325i was affected by a Takata recall and my parents’ old Toyota Matrix was affected by a Takata recall. The repair processes on both were quick, painless, and free. As a bonus, because the steering wheel airbag on my 325i was affected, I got a brand new emblem as part of the airbag assembly, a little touch that helped spruce up my well-used interior.
As for what could happen if a vehicle owner neglects this recall work, risk of injury or death is low, but not zero. As it stands in America, 24 fatalities and hundreds of injuries have been reported, and even though the first recalls went out in 2011, these recalled airbag inflators are still killing people. Just over a year ago, a recalled Takata airbag in a 2002 Accord ruptured in a Kentucky collision. The driver didn’t make it. These older Accords have some of the most volatile Takata airbag inflators, but that seems to likely be a combination of age and Takata’s error rather than Honda’s fault. Honda likely wouldn’t have known prior to assembly that Takata produced problematic inflators, and the marque claims it took every step possible to contact the owner of that vehicle including more than 40 mailed notices, more than 40 electronic notices, and more than 230 phone calls since 2011. This airbag-related fatality could have been prevented, but it’s up to owners to get repairs done.
If you drive a vehicle affected by a Takata airbag recall or know someone who does, please make every effort to have repairs completed. A little bit of inconvenience isn’t worth life or limb, and NHTSA has made it easy to check for recalls using this handy VIN tool. Recalls are wonderful in theory, but only if drivers take the time and conscious effort to have them completed.
(Photo credits: Toyota, Honda, BMW)
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I’d be curious about the ratio of remaining cars to total affected for the various manufacturers, to see if any had a better approach to getting folks to come in.
I remember that Saturn used to throw recall parties with free hot dogs and drinks to get folks to come in. Turned a PR nightmare into a PR plus and had a quite high rate of repair, I believe.
“Takata airbags can become unstable, potentially sending shrapnel hurtling towards the driver or other vehicle occupants. Sort of like a Claymore, except with the front towards you.”
Hmm. Can we repurpose the defective airbags as catalytic converter anti theft devices, triggered to blow when it senses a thief at work? Everyone gets a sticker: “Protected by Takata”. Better than Smith and Wesson sticker .
It took more than 2 years to get the Takata airbags replaced in our old Mercedes. Not for lack of trying, just from lack of non-exploding-in-your-face airbags to replace them with.
I work at a GM dealership, in the parts department. For us, there are two different types of inflators, and my manager always keeps them on hand. I’m not sure how it works elsewhere, but I know that our service department looks up every VIN when the customer comes in for an appointment to see if there are any open recalls, and if there are, they just tack them on to the RO. But even with that policy, we still get probably ten or so of these a month. It’s amazing how many vehicles were affected by this.
I have one in my Outback. Subaru keeps sending me reminders in different languages, figuring the English notices didn’t get me.
It’s a passenger airbag in a car that doesn’t really ever have front seat passengers. It’s also switched off.
You should still get it fixed – it only takes one ride to kill someone. For instance, a backpack on the seat could switch it back on and then you have shrapnel in an accident going about the interior which may/may not hit you.
Thanks. I’ll disconnect it.
I imagine that leads to an airbag warning light on the dash, which means it can’t pass inspections in any state requiring them.
It just isn’t so simple. I owned a 2011 Mercedes R350 for 18 months that was under Takata recall the entire time. I sold it to the next owner in 2019, still under recall. There were no parts to fix it, no forecast of availability, and no significant communication. So, individual experiences vary, manufacturers were botching the process by prioritizing airbag supply to new builds, and the federal government operated a disastrously complex zone-based campaign. A lot of blundering at the system level. No surprise if a lot of people just gave up after years of waiting.
The Benz was a deeper maintenance and repair headache than anything I’ve experienced, by the way. Designed for disposal.
I kept getting recall notices for years after scrapping a Saab 9-2x that apparently never had the recall done, even after I reported that it was no longer on the road, so the number of bad airbags still out there is probably quite a bit lower than reported.
It’s also a pain to get some of them done, like *another* 9-2x that I had, with 220,000 miles when I bought it, that STILL hadn’t had the recall done. I had to take it to a Subaru/Kia dealership 10 miles away (that coincidentally used to sell Saabs, and still had a big Saab logo painted on the wall in the service area, which was cool). They couldn’t give me a shuttle ride due to the distance, so I had to get picked up and dropped off by someone.
My friend had a similar issue with his Pontiac Vibe, he had to call a Cadillac dealer to have his done, which was also not very close to where he lived, and if I remember correctly they also really took their time with getting the airbag ordered so he could bring the car in.
I’d imagine it’s easier if the recall isn’t for a vehicle from a “dead” brand, but it certainly doesn’t help get the numbers down.
In Australia there were about 3m cars that needed to be recalled for Takata airbags and by early 2021 they had done 99.9% of them.
Probably helped that in some states they will refuse to register your car if you haven’t done the recall. Not hard to get a good result if done in a smart way.
Will all the outreach efforts, and the fact that the recall was really, really heavily in the mainstream news around 2011/2012 (not to MH370 level saturation coverage, but still very heavy), you pretty well either have to live under a rock, or have big ol’ rocks in your head to not know about the Takata airbag problem at this point. Owners who haven’t gotten their cars fixed are making a choice, its a questionable choice, but its a choice.
I started getting Takata mail notices and phone calls for a Nissan Versa AFTER my son totaled it in early 2018. He had a few scratches from the shrapnel but was, thankfully, otherwise ok. I’m skeptical about the quantity remaining as I still keep getting nagged after informing them multiple times that it was last known to be RIP (Rusting in Pieces) in a NC junkyard.
I guarantee you this is a big part of it – I’ll believe that most of those unrepaired Toyotas are probably still out there, but you can scratch off a good amount of those 15-20 year old BMWs and Nissans as having been junked already.
I would think in states that have vehicle inspections the owner would be so informed taking care of a lot of notifications. I was informed Isuzu did not use Takata either.
Lets consider the Tullock spike, for those who don’t know, is a though experiment suggesting that if governments were serious about reducing road causalities, they should mandate a sharp spike be installed in the center of each car’s steering wheel. Increasing the probability that an accident would be fatal to the driver.
Takata has, in a way, made this thought experiment a reality by potentially installing claymores in steering wheels. However I would argue no one in the past decade has made significant changes to their driving habits after learning of this potential threat.
Do you think Gordon Tullock’s assessment was wrong? Or does the Takata airbag lack the imminent threat of a shiny sharp spike staring you down as you accelerate down the interstate?
I had a TR3 with a rod straight, noncollapsible steering column all the way to the steering box. Same idea, will definitely impale you in a collision, just not as obvious.
The spike could be for appearance only, kinda like those chromed cheap plastic spiky lugnut covers truckers love so much.
I think part of it may have been that we got the announcement of the dangerous airbags months before we could do anything about it. Unless you could afford to park a vehicle for months waiting for replacement parts, you had to get used to driving it with the claymore.
I had to pay $100 to Subaru to put in a new dash because they cracked my dash doing the airbag recall. This decision came from the regional manager. Their excuse was that it was a 15 year old car, so they couldn’t just give me a new one for free.
My ancient Subaru’s second airbag replacement made some squeaks go away. As far as I know they didn’t break anything.
People are lazy. People are stupid. My nephew had a Honda Accord that needed new airbags. Every time I mentioned it he would say, “Yeah. I need to take care of that.” When he sold it I asked him if he informed the buyer of the airbag situation. “Nah. It’s their problem now.” Shameful.
Look at that Honda dash! It’s a real dash! No screens or anything. I had one like that, and I miss those days.
That’s exactly what I said to myself when I saw the photo. It’s like running across a picture of a long-lost friend…
My 2008 Honda Civic was affected. I received a notice, but it was over a year before they notified me parts were available to perform the service.
Keep in mind that millions of replacement airbags were needed to be made. All by Takata and all for a significant monetary loss. This is the largest automotive recall in history. Then parts were made available to areas having significant moisture first as the probability of failing is higher in those climates.
You have to wonder how accurate those numbers are. Just an anecdote – my wife’s CR-V was totaled in 2016 (thankfully the airbag didn’t go off) yet Honda’s been sending us Takata recall notices for years. Despite me sending back several mailers noting the car was gone and even calling the hotline number and speaking with someone about it they continue to send them. Now I just throw them away.
I donated my 2006 Mini to charity in 2020, and BMW still hadn’t called it in. Only communication was a letter in 2014 basically telling me to hold tight (or duck).