In Japan, no airbags are better than hazardous ones

Toyota recalled 650,000 vehicles in Japan and 1.62 million overseas this month to fix possibly defective airbag inflators made by Takata.

Photo credit: TAKATA
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TOKYO -- The massive recall of airbags made by Japan’s Takata Corp. presents a global fix-it fiasco. With millions of cars needing new airbag inflators, it will take months to remedy all the vehicles on the road.

That has prompted some less-than-optimal workarounds.

In Japan, for example, there have been no exploding airbag fatalities. Still, carmakers reckon having no airbag is safer than having a possibly faulty one shred customers with shrapnel. The stopgap: Disable the safety feature until the fix is in.

Toyota Motor Corp. is telling its dealers to turn off passenger-side airbags, slap a warning label on the visor and instruct people to sit in the back seat. Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. are doing the same.

Awkward solutions

The impromptu solution underscores the contortions forced on automakers in an era when regulators demand immediate action on multimillion-unit worldwide recalls. Automakers have to resort to makeshift remedies in Japan because regulators here demand that they have some kind of fix ready -- no matter how awkward -- when they announce a recall.

It echoes General Motors’ awkward request that customers remove any extra weight from their key fobs while waiting for their defective ignition switches to be repaired.

In the United States, Japanese carmakers are keeping the airbags turned on. Regulators there don’t require a stopgap, and the remedy campaign is expected to span several waves, relieving demand for an immediate flood of replacement parts, automakers say.

Illegal answer

“Disabling airbags is prohibited by law,” Nissan spokesman Chris Keeffe said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “has not directed us to take that action.”

Japan, however, has no such qualms about tampering with the usually life-saving bags.

“An airbag complements the function of seat belts, so if the passenger fastens the seat belt appropriately, it will provide a certain level of safety,” Mazda spokeswoman Keiko Yano said. “We do not judge this to be a safety problem.”

Toyota recalled 650,000 vehicles in Japan and 1.62 million overseas this month to fix possibly defective airbag inflators made by Takata.

Honda, Nissan and Mazda followed with a similar recall targeting nearly 3 million units. Separately, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota recalled some 1.1 million vehicles in markets such as Florida and Puerto Rico, where the high humidity was said to exacerbate the problem.

Months to complete

Toyota has said it will take months to complete its repairs. Honda expects a parts shortage to be especially acute in Japan because consumers here react quickly to recalls.

“Japan has a very high rate of customers coming to the dealers to have their parts replaced,” Honda spokeswoman Yuka Abe said. “Therefore, we assumed that there might be a possibility that our spare parts cannot catch up with the speed of customers coming in. That is why we temporarily disable the airbags until the spare parts are ready.”

The problems have been twofold: moisture and record keeping. Initially, moisture because of improper storage at the factory was believed to degrade the inflators, causing them to explode and spray pieces of metal into the cabin.

Automakers issued a recall to address that problem in April 2013. But in the meantime, it was determined that faulty record keeping by Takata might have let more defective parts slip through the cracks. That forced carmakers to widen the recall this month.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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