Dealerships should prepare to turn off potentially explosive airbags. And the government should support that.
Currently, it's illegal for dealerships to disable a functioning airbag. But Toyota let dealers disable Takata Corp. airbags, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's blessing, in recalled vehicles if replacement parts were unavailable. The rationale was that the affected airbags were nonfunctioning, so it was OK to turn them off.
Without replacements, disabling recalled airbags is the only viable solution.
Consider the overwhelming number of vehicles affected. So far, 11 million vehicles in the U.S. and 14 million worldwide have been recalled by 11 manufacturers. In contrast, Takata predicts that it will be able to crank up production of inflators to 450,000 a month by January, from 300,000 now.
At that rate, it could be two years before supply matches all the suspect airbags supposed to be replaced in the U.S., let alone those in other countries. And the number of U.S. recalls could grow further if recalls spread nationwide instead of being restricted to high-humidity regions.
Meanwhile, Japanese regulators are pressing Takata to step up its replacement of targeted airbags in their country. It's easy to imagine that soon, regulators and consumer advocates in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere will be pressing automakers to take care of their nation's consumers first.
Parking all the affected vehicles until they can be fixed isn't realistic.
Some critics will say that turning off airbags puts drivers and passengers at risk of death. But that perpetuates a gross misunderstanding of the role of airbags. In fact, this crisis is an opportunity to educate the public about the realities of vehicle safety.
Front airbags never were intended to be the primary safety device for saving people's lives. They are a secondary defense.
Simply put, seat belts save lives. Front airbags reduce drivers' and passengers' injuries and lacerations.
Ideally, the two work together, with the seat belt positioning the individual so that the airbag can be most effective. But seat belts come first.
With Takata's flawed airbags putting people at risk, though, it's time to turn off that risk and go back to relying on seat belts as the acknowledged primary defense.
In congressional hearings, lawmakers made it clear that they think urgent action is needed to keep people safe. If, indeed, consumers are safer without their Takata airbags than with them, then the following three steps should happen:
1. Dealerships should turn off those airbags if the customer requests it.
2. Congress should take action to protect dealerships from liability if someone is injured in an accident after having an airbag disabled.
3. States should step up their "Click It or Ticket" campaigns to encourage drivers and passengers to wear their seat belts.