With Air-Bag Problem, Auto Industry Breaks Annual Recall Record

(Los Angeles Times/MCT) -

With a massive recall of air bags on Monday, the U.S. auto industry has broken the annual record for safety recalls in less than half a year.

Automakers are recalling millions of vehicles to replace defective explosive charges in air bags that can send metal shrapnel flying at occupants during a crash. Car companies have now called back at least 31.4 million vehicles in the U.S. this year, breaking the industry’s record for annual recalls of 30.8 million set in 2004. The air-bag issue so far accounts for about 3 million of that, and is likely to grow.

The air bags, made by Takata Corp., are used in millions of vehicles made by Honda, Nissan, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW, underscoring how increasing use of common parts is amplifying safety problems. To cut costs, automakers are designing different models to share platforms and many parts, so a single defect can affect millions more vehicles than in the past.

Honda and Nissan are recalling the air bags, while other automakers are characterizing the defect differently. But Ford, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW are considering recalls, according to documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Toyota recalled about 766,000 in the U.S. for the same defect earlier this month.

Automakers are split on how they are labeling the air-bag action. Honda said it is recalling 2 million vehicles, including 2001-2007 Accords, 2001-2005 Civics, 2002-2006 CR-Vs, 2002-2004 Odyssey vans, 2003-2007 Pilots, 2003-2011 Elements and other Honda and Acura models.

Nissan is calling back 228,000 vehicles in North America, including the Infiniti FX35 and Pathfinder.

But Ford and Chrysler said they are conducting a “field action” in cooperation with the NHTSA to collect air-bag inflators from cars for the agency’s investigation into the problem. A Mazda spokesman described its action as “special service program” of 34,600 vehicles that works like a recall.

The NHTSA has found that in some of the vehicles, the propellant housed in a metal canister in the system can burn too quickly, causing the container to explode. If that happens, metal shards will spray into the passenger cabin. Sometimes the problem is with the driver’s air bag; at other times it occurs on the passenger side.

Millions of vehicles in the U.S. and elsewhere have previously been recalled for the problem. But NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation started receiving more reports of incidents of air-bag-inflator ruptures last year. The agency said it learned of three injuries caused by the problem.

A review found at least six incidents that occurred in hot and humid regions such as Florida and Puerto Rico. Investigators are looking into whether high humidity is causing the propellant in the air-bag canisters to burn too quickly.

Takata has asked automakers to look at cars registered in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But Honda said it will also recall vehicles in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, based on the high humidity levels in those states.