For Drivers, Confusion Reigns in Airbag Recall

When millions of Americans woke up Wednesday morning to go to work, many asked themselves a simple question: Is my car safe to drive?

A day earlier, Takata, the Japanese maker of airbags, agreed to double to 34 million the number of vehicles in the United States that needed to be recalled. The vehicles may contain airbags that can explode violently when they deploy, sending pieces of metal flying into the cabin. Six deaths have been linked to the problem.

But automakers on Wednesday were still sorting out which cars needed to be included in the expanded recall, leaving many consumers with more questions than answers.

John Young, of San Jose, Calif., is not sure whether his 2003 Honda Accord is affected. Although certain 2003 Accords have been listed under previous Takata-related recalls, when he typed his vehicle identification number into the government’s website,, none of those recalls, not to mention the one announced Tuesday, were listed.

“This has been tough to follow,” Mr. Young, 35, said. “Very confusing.”

For now, he still drives the car every day to work, he said, but he does not like having his wife in the passenger seat.

To make matters more complicated, Mr. Young was recently mailed a recall notice for a different car that the couple owned, a Honda Civic, which was wrecked in a crash about three years ago. The airbags in that car, he said, deployed properly and no one was hurt.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said compiling a definitive list of which vehicles fall under the sweeping new recall would take several days. That is because Takata’s revelation requires 10 automakers to match their own records with Takata’s so the list can be drawn up and made public.

Honda, the automaker that has been most affected by the recalls, said on Wednesday that it was working on the list but did not have a specific timetable.

A message about the Takata recall was posted on the safety agency’s website, urging consumers to “check back periodically as a recall on your vehicle may not show up immediately.”


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The agency made its announcement on Tuesday because Takata’s defect reports — the first step before automakers could check their rosters — were filed that day and were public documents. Had the agency not stepped forward with its announcement right away, the documents would probably have been noticed and caused widespread confusion.

Consumers were still confused. Some were not taking any chances, and dealerships around the country were fielding calls from worried customers seeking to find out if they were affected. “We have customers who are scheduling an appointment just in case,” said Marc Cannon, chief marketing officer at AutoNation, the country’s largest chain of auto dealerships. “They know there will be a recall coming, so they’re trying to be proactive.”

Mr. Cannon said the company’s dealerships had “clearly seen an increase in calls” since the Takata announcement on Tuesday — though dealers themselves did not yet know which of their customers were affected by the new recall.


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“Obviously we’re waiting for the information, too,” he said.

Mark R. Rosekind, the administrator of the safety agency, said that while consumers needed to get their cars fixed as soon as possible, he realized that things like getting to work could outweigh the risk while they are waiting. “Yes, people need to drive their cars,” he said.

Lawmakers, along with the safety agency itself, are urging wider availability of loaner cars, so consumers will not have to choose between safety and mobility. But many automakers have been uneven in their willingness to provide loaners.

The Takata recall stands in contrast to the Toyota recalls for unintended acceleration several years ago. In that case, some dealers said, parts were available and their repair shops stayed open later to make the repairs.

“Typically, the automakers announce recalls, so they have their ducks in a row before doing so,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of, a consumer website. “Because this recall involves components shared by many automakers and was essentially forced by N.H.T.S.A., the manufacturers are now playing catch-up.”

While the recall list will take days to complete, a more difficult problem lies ahead: actually replacing the tens of millions of Takata airbags. Federal officials estimate it could take months for some consumers and years for others to receive their repairs.

Takata recently said it would increase production to nearly one million units a month. A recall of 34 million vehicles would translate to nearly three years, if only one airbag per vehicle needed to be repaired — but some vehicles will need more than one airbag replaced. As of the end of 2014, only about two million airbags from the earlier recalls had been replaced, according to safety regulators.

Some automakers, like Honda, have turned to other suppliers for help in meeting demand, but even with that the wait is likely to be long — leaving worried consumers in a bind.

“Logistically, this thing is a nightmare,” said Bruce Spinney, who worked at the auto safety agency from 1970 to 2008, specializing in the cost impact of new safety features. “It is a massive job.”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx acknowledged as much on Tuesday, saying at the news conference, “This is probably the most complex consumer safety recall in U.S. history.”

Millions of people are still waiting for help from the host of recalls that preceded Tuesday’s announcement. Clayton Kratz, of Alexandria, Va., received his first recall notice for the airbag defect about three months ago. He took his car, a dark green 2003 Honda Accord, to his dealership and scheduled an appointment, but he was told there were no parts.

The dealer said it would call him back when the parts came in. He said he had still not heard back.

Then, on Tuesday, he heard the announcement of the expanded recall. Sitting in his car and staring toward his airbag, he thought, “I’m sitting in front of a possibly live grenade.”


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Mr. Kratz, who is 25, added: “They don’t have parts to fix my car. How are they going to get parts for millions more?”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also unsettled over the potential timetable for fixing what is now the largest automotive recall in American history.

“If we’re going to be serious about the recall, we ought to be equally serious about the remedy,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “Clearly, Takata can’t do it alone. The entire industry needs to be enlisted to get this done.”

The safety agency, for its part, says it planned to push hard to speed things up, and Mr. Rosekind has taken a tougher stance since coming aboard in December. But a spokesman, Gordon Trowbridge, said the agency lacked certain powers that would help, like authority to ban used car dealers from selling cars with unrepaired defects. The huge transportation bill under consideration by Congress, Mr. Trowbridge said, includes such new powers for the agency. Its chances of passage, though, are uncertain.

At the same time, lawmakers fuming over Takata’s actions continued to apply pressure on the company.

On Wednesday, a letter sent to Takata by the Senate commerce committee’s chairman, John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, and the panel’s top Democrat, Bill Nelson of Florida, sought more information about tests performed by Takata dating to the early 2000s.

The letter cited a report last week in The New York Times that a consultant had questioned the company’s methods for testing leaks and demanded that Takata provide documents to the committee about its leak testing programs.

“Outstanding issues still remain,” the letter said.

Stephanie Erdman no longer drives a car with Takata airbags. She was seriously injured in September 2013 in Destin, Fla., when her 2002 Honda Civic collided with another car. Her airbag exploded, spraying metal into her face and neck and embedding a shard in her right eye.

Ms. Erdman said she was glad Takata had taken a step toward admitting fault by agreeing to expand the recall but was frustrated that a full list of affected cars was not yet available and that repairs might take years.

“What happened to me could happen to anyone,” she said.

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