For the second time this year, a long-standing defect linked to deaths and injuries has triggered a mushrooming auto-safety crisis, lending more fuel to criticism that federal regulators haven't done enough to protect consumers from such dangers.
Ten automakers have issued recalls for millions of airbags that, rather than save drivers and passengers in a crash, can explode with a lethal spray of jagged metal.
The flaw is connected to two deaths in what were otherwise fender benders, and two others may be related; just this month, a Florida woman died with such unexpectedly severe gashes in her neck after a crash that police reportedly suspected homicide -- until a recall notice for the vehicle arrived the following week.
Perhaps most unnerving to consumers, the problem doesn't yet appear to be contained. On Wednesday, Oct. 22, two automakers told Automotive News that they couldn't say for sure whether all of the bad airbags had been identified. The next morning, one of them, Nissan Motor Corp., expanded its list by 260,000 vehicles globally, though none of the additions are in the U.S.
"The thing just keeps expanding," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "The year span gets wider; the list of makes and models keeps getting longer."
There have been few concrete answers about the scope of the problem from the airbag supplier, Takata Corp. of Japan. And after new data showed that the airbags posed a greater danger than previously believed, U.S. regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bungled attempts to raise awareness of the problem by understating the number of vehicles affected by more than 3 million; releasing incorrect lists of which makes and models are problematic; and referring consumers to a website that stopped functioning for days.
After watching the agency she ran in the 1970s stagger last week, former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook put it bluntly: "I think they're having a meltdown."
Bloomberg reported late Friday that NHTSA's errors and overall "safety culture" were under review by a special team inside the Department of Transportation. The report cited a senior Obama administration official who requested anonymity.
Despite the gruesome nature of the defect, NHTSA agreed not to require official recalls for many of the airbags. That has allowed automakers to use less formal notification processes and to largely exclude all but a handful of states and U.S. territories where Takata says high humidity can make its inflators dangerously explosive.
The situation has, in many ways, mirrored the crisis that confronted General Motors earlier this year but on an even larger scale because of the number of automakers and vehicles involved. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, which also is probing the GM ignition-switch recall, has begun a similar investigation into Takata, sources told The Wall Street Journal, and the two congressional committees that conducted hearings with GM and NHTSA officials said they are seeking explanations from NHTSA on Takata.
Also, as in the GM case, NHTSA so far has refused to exert its full regulatory power with Takata as it awaits additional data to confirm whether the airbags do, in fact, constitute a safety defect.
But whereas GM said its testing concluded that unrepaired vehicles were safe if driven with nothing attached to the ignition key, there appears to be no way -- short of avoiding a crash before getting the airbag replaced -- for customers affected by the Takata actions to ensure their safety.