Texas teen’s death spurs renewed call to complete Takata airbag inflator fixes

The death of a high-school-senior, driving a 2002 Honda Civic whose airbag inflator housing shattered when the device deployed, has reignited the debate in the ongoing Takata airbag recall.

The death of a young woman in Texas that shouldn’t have happened has become the focal point of the ongoing debate over exploding Takata airbag inflators. In the accident, 17-year-old Huma Hanif, a high school senior, of Richmond, Texas, died of injuries she received when the airbag on her 2002 Honda Civic deployed in a minor accident.

Sheriff’s department records indicate the Civic the teenager was driving at the time of the incident struck the rear of another vehicle at an intersection. According to Sheriff Troy E. Nehls of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, the high school senior should have survived the relatively minor accident. He repeated and others police officials agree that everyone should have walked away from the crash.

However, that was not the case. Further investigation into the case by the medical examiner showed that shrapnel from an exploding Takata-made airbag inflator housing struck the Hanif in the neck, cutting her jugular and vein and carotid artery. The injuries were fatal. Videos by the sheriff’s office showed an official holding the blood-stained airbag and a piece of jagged metal pulled from the victim’s neck. Other pictures released by the sheriff’s department indicated there was little apparent damage to the passenger compartment, other than the deployed airbag.

The accident and the seeming contradictions it raises shows just how complicated an issue the airbag recall and response process has become. For example, in the initial report of the accident yesterday, Honda indicated that it had sent several recall notices to every owner of the vehicle, including the current owner, beginning in 2011.

Hanif’s brothers, though, in an emotional news conference contradicted the automaker. Her brother Faizon said they had received no recall notices. He continued that “I wish we had received a notice from Honda so we could have avoided this tragedy,” while urging others to have defective airbags repaired “before you lose a loved one.”

This issue squarely highlights one of the central problems with this recall, notification and response. Speaking to the Reuters, Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said the agency plans a more aggressive stance. A spokesman said the agency has plans to be:

  • Louder
  • More public

as it requires manufacturers to do reach out to vehicle owners more efficiently so that it can ensure recall completion. Now the agency uses traditional means of notifying owners – mail – but it feels that conventional methods are not up to the job. Thomas concluded “more must be done.”

Earlier this week, a Honda explained that it had significantly increased the size of its customer relations group. Honda uses this team to get owners to respond to recall notices and to have their vehicle airbags fixed at no cost.

Meantime, Congress plans to weigh in on the issue next week as a House subcommittee, chaired by a Texas lawmaker, plans a hearing next week. At the hearing on April 14, Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator, is slated to testify on the Takata airbag issue. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, is the chair of the panel.

To date, the Takata airbag inflator crisis has sparked the largest safety recall in history. The issue first surfaced around 2004 and has mushroomed since. Though official recalls began in 2008, they were small, compared to the numbers of vehicles now under recall. Since 2008, the recalls have burgeoned to the point that nearly 55 million vehicles worldwide have been recalled by various automakers. A total of 14 automakers are involved in the recalls.

The recalls are to fix faulty airbag inflators manufactured by Takata. Until recently, investigators were busy trying to find the cause of the inflator issue. Independent and in-house probes have pointed to the propellant used, ammonium nitrate, as the reason for the entire issue. Deterioration of the propellant, caused by moisture infiltration, increases the force of deployment to the point where it can shatter the inflator housing. On shattering, the shrapnel created scythes through the interior of the vehicle, sometimes with deadly effect. So far, 11 fatalities worldwide have been attributed to the airbag inflators. And, more than 100 injuries have also been attributed to them.

Automotive News reported the airbag story prepared by Reuters and other sources.

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