Federal safety officials are calling for a massive national recall of automobiles built with a potentially explosive air bag, a move that may affect an estimated 30 million vehicles in the United States.
The announcement regarding driver’s-side air bags could lead to one of the nation’s largest-ever automobile recalls, and possibly overwhelm manufacturers’ ability to replace the air bag systems.
The devices are made by a Japanese firm, Takata, and used by at least 10 automakers — BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We now know that millions of vehicles must be recalled to address defective Takata air bags, and our aggressive investigation is far from over,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said in a statement. “We’re pushing Takata and all affected manufacturers to issue the recall and to ensure the recalls capture the full scope of the problems.”
A previous recall had been more limited, involving only about 8 million vehicles in more humid areas, where the problem had seemed most prevalent. The exploding air bags can blast shrapnel into drivers or passengers.
But even the more limited recall seemed to stretch automakers’ abilities to do the repairs, in part because the replacement air bags are in short supply.
Honda said it did not have enough parts to immediately fix the more than 5 million Accords, Civics and other vehicles with defective air bags.
Toyota, meanwhile, said it was instructing its dealerships to disable air bags and warn against riding in the passenger seat.
The speed of the recall could depend on Takata. “It’s going to be a long slog,” said John O’Dell, an analyst at Edmunds.com, the automotive Web site. “Takata has to step up to the plate and get them product. One can’t fault the automakers for not having what the suppliers haven’t supplied.”
NHTSA officials nevertheless signaled their determination to broaden the fix, though they have not yet pinpointed which models and years will be involved.
If Takata and the manufacturers do not quickly agree to the recall, the officials said in the announcement Tuesday, the agency “will use the full extent of its statutory powers to ensure vehicles that use the same or similar air bag inflator are recalled.”
The announcement appears to represent a significant turnabout by the agency, which had previously defended the more limited recall.
Regulators had said a broader nationwide recall would divert a limited supply of replacement air bags “from those at demonstrated risk” in areas with long-term humidity and heat.
But that position drew stern criticism from Capitol Hill. In a letter to NHTSA last month, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said they were “increasingly troubled and alarmed” by regulators’ public guidance.
They also criticized the “arbitrary geographic boundaries” of automakers’ “puzzling and inconsistent” recall.
For example, while Subaru and BMW had announced nationwide recalls for Takata air bags, Honda at the time had issued a more limited recall.
At the time, Markey’s office put the number of affected vehicles at 30 million, an estimate based on auto registration and other federal transportation data.
Blumenthal and Markey said they were pleased by NHTSA’s decision Tuesday, and added that the recall should include both driver’s-side and passenger-side air bags. “NHTSA today acknowledged that the danger presented by Takata air bags is not limited to any one part of the country,” Blumenthal and Markey said in a statement.
“Three of the four known deaths that have occurred from these deadly air bags happened outside of the regional recall boundaries, which proves that this haphazard geographic safety regime doesn’t work,” Markey said separately.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement that “by demanding this national recall, NHTSA has demonstrated once again that it will follow data and evidence to protect the lives of Americans on the road and to hold manufacturers accountable.”
Although the rate of reported incidents is low, the air bags have been linked to four deaths and more than 100 injuries so far.
In recent days, Takata has conceded that it changed the chemical mix of its propellant in newly designed air bag inflators, according to NHTSA.
The agency said it will investigate whether the new chemical composition of Takata’s propellant mix may be a contributing factor in the air bag inflator ruptures. It has asked the company to provide, under oath, documents and detailed information on the propellant used in Takata’s inflators. Company and government officials are due to face Congress in a hearing Thursday.