Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) advised owners of approximately 276,000 Chryslers not to drive the cars because of defective airbags.
The warning comes after two people died in separate crashes involving 2010 Dodge Chargers in which the Takata driver’s side airbags exploded.
“In addition, NHTSA is aware of several other suspected inflator ruptures in other automakers’ vehicles that may have been attributed to Takata airbags exploding.”
“The NHTSA urges all vehicle owners to immediately check if their vehicle has an open Takata airbag recall. If this is the case, owners must contact their dealer to arrange a free repair as soon as possible and heed any vehicle manufacturer warnings. Dealers will work with vehicle owners to arrange ways for vehicles to be brought in for repairs.”
Corporate crime reporter Contacted NHTSA for details of deaths – who was killed, what type of car accident, where did it occur?
NHTSA’s Derrell Lyles responded with an email: “Please contact Fiat Chrysler for more information.”
Wait, isn’t NHTSA supposed to be the safety agency?
We turned to Chrysler.
“We are aware of two confirmed fractures that involved fatalities. A third crash is being investigated,” the company said in a statement. “Everything happened within the last seven months and was for 2010 model year vehicles only. Prior to these incidents we contacted these specific owners a total of 153 times. The call back didn’t help either. One of the three contacted our call center in 2018 and declined an opportunity to receive the free recall repair.”
“In a contact with Takata unrelated to these three cases, the vehicle owner indicated that if Stellantis continued to urge them to obtain the recall funds, they would seek a cease and desist order.”
But Chrysler didn’t provide more specifics on the deaths — what kind of accidents, where they happened, types of injuries.
Back to NHTSA. No Answer.
Jerry Cox is the author of Killer Airbags: How to Protect Yourself from the Worst Disaster in Automotive History.
“What the NHTSA spokesman is telling you is that Chrysler is making these decisions. It’s not NHTSA that makes the decisions, it’s Chrysler,” said Cox Corporate crime reporter in an interview earlier this month.
“Right now, automakers are following the Fight Club formula,” said Cox.
“It’s from the movie The Fight Club. There’s a guy who works for a big car company and is working on deciding whether to recall cars. And they come up with a formula that, in a nutshell, says they just put up with the victims unless it costs them more than a recall.”
“We don’t do anything that doesn’t help us save money.”
“And the NHTSA is leaderless. Biden finally got someone confirmed, went to great lengths, worked several months to get someone confirmed, and the guy stayed on the job for two months.
Do you know why he left?
“No, but if I were in this job when highway deaths are rising the way they’ve been under this administration, I wouldn’t want to be in that position.”
There’s a reason Chrysler and NHTSA don’t want the public to know the details of these airbag fatalities, and that’s why they didn’t release the information.
Tell us what happens in a Takata airbag death?
“The ammonium nitrate that Takata put in the inflator is meant to burn at a certain rate,” Cox said. “If it burns at the right rate, gas enters the airbag, inflating the airbag and protecting the driver from, for example, a steering wheel impact.”
“On the other hand, if the ammonium nitrate has too much surface area, it doesn’t burn, it just explodes and the metal case it’s in turns into shrapnel. Large chunks of metal fly out.”
“In one of the Ford fatalities, a piece of metal went down the driver’s throat and severed his spinal cord. He was pretty much decapitated by it. But there are other circumstances when the shrapnel knocks off an ear or a nose. In one case in California, a chunk of metal struck a passenger in the forehead. It was like blunt force trauma — like hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat.”
“That’s why it’s pretty ugly and pretty gory. In most of the deaths, people were effectively decapitated.”
Is there action in Congress to draw more attention to this issue?
“I’ve never seen any action in Congress to draw attention to this issue, at least not since NHTSA made its deal with Takata and the auto companies in 2015.”
“Those Takata airbags have been killing people for eighteen years. And it’s been seven years since anyone in Congress paid the slightest attention.”
It’s not a huge death toll — a few deaths a year. Is that why Congress isn’t paying attention?
“I wish I knew. It’s one thing when a company puts something in your car and it goes wrong and kills you. But when they put something in your car to save you, like an airbag, and it kills you , it should draw attention, but it didn’t. And I don’t understand how the largest consumer product recall in history is being submerged the way this recall was submerged.”
When there is an airbag death, it is usually reported in the local newspaper.
“That means the police have to say something about it. And the local police are eventually brushed aside by the NHTSA and the car companies coming in to say — don’t go around saying this is an airbag death because we don’t know that yet, even if someone has a piece of an airbag has inflator stuck in her spine.”
“Also, in many of these cases, people are injured so badly that the police believe the cause to be murder. That happened early because no one heard of a Takata airbag killing anyone. The police would start investigating it as a homicide.”
“There was a case of a Vietnamese woman on her way home from her nail salon. And she had a bunch of money in the car. She wasn’t robbed. But she was killed. And it turns out she was killed by the Takata airbag inflator.”
“If you leave it to the car companies, they certainly won’t tell you this is happening.”
Takata pleaded guilty to a felony in 2017 and paid $1 billion.
“Yes, but most of the money went to the auto companies — $25 million went to the government, $850 million went to the auto companies, and $125 million to a fund for people who were killed or maimed.”
“The lion’s share of that billion was a refund to the auto companies to help them with recall costs. But the car companies use the Flight Club recall formula and only do recalls when they absolutely have to. They have about eight million cars that have been recalled and not repaired. But there are still 30 million cars with Takata airbags that have never been recalled let alone replaced.”
What is the Fight Club formula?
“In the movie The Fight Club, the character Ed Norton has a conversation with a woman on an airplane. There is some turbulence. And he tells her – that’s nothing compared to what I’m dealing with. I work for a big car company. I’m being called to find out if they’re going to do a safety recall if something terrible happens. And he says – they don’t do safety recalls unless the numbers are right. The law says if there’s a safety issue in the car, they have to at least recall it. But they don’t even do the recall unless the numbers are right.”
“In the Chrysler case, reporters aren’t asking the questions you asked — who are these people? how did they die Where were they killed? We know that these gas generators degrade at different rates depending on which region of the country they are in. But they have not provided any information.”
Obviously they don’t want to release the information because of the gruesome nature of the deaths.
“I don’t think that’s why they don’t want to release the information,” Cox said. “If people know what could happen to them, they’ll probably be more inclined to get their cars fixed, and that’s going to cost the car companies money.”
“It’s going to be more expensive to replace the airbags in the 300,000 Chrysler than the Fords because Chrysler had this special design so you couldn’t just take the inflator out and put a new inflator in it.”
“You’re talking about a 12-year-old Chrysler. How much is that worth now? If you’re lucky, the car might be worth $2,000.”
Why are there no tort suits for the death of Takata airbags?
“The bankruptcy court has as good as ruled them out.”
There is a Takata Airbag Tort Compensation Trust Fund.
“Yes, and even if you apply and you’re eligible, the best you can get is about 14 cents on the dollar. The first step in the process Special Master Eric Green goes through is to figure out what your claim would have been worth. Let’s say it was a death and the family claim was worth $1.4 million. They would make up 14 percent of that — $196,000. And that’s for a claim worth $1.4 million.”
Takata pleaded guilty to one felony. Full compensation should be paid. Why did they set it up like this?
“Of the $1 billion, $850 million went to the auto companies.”
What if the fund runs out of money? Are the people who come after unlucky?
“Bankruptcy trustee Eric Green spent a lot of money trying to find a way to keep the fund from running out. He approved the actual payments in almost all cases many years after the death or injury. He has approved withdrawals based on his calculations of what is required to keep money in the fund for future applicants. And the amount for future beneficiaries has been greatly reduced. It was a real struggle to get bankruptcy money into this fund.”
“It’s very complicated. But the bottom line is that if you get hurt or killed, you’re pretty unlucky. There are some things you can do, but you’re pretty unlucky. He’s filing reports that says where the money went.”
(Eric Green did not respond for comment.)
What should Congress do to fix this problem?
“Congress needs to put pressure on the President to put someone in charge of NHTSA who will do something. That’s number one. There should be oversight hearings as to why the NHTSA has been headless for about 10 of the last 12 years. Why is it headless?”
“Each of those 300,000 cars was registered with a state registration agency. And they were registered after the DMV was given instant access to the database. It was a matter of seconds before a DMV found out someone was handing you a registration for a car with one of those killer airbags. What does the DMV do? They register the car despite the recall notice and give you your registration card.”
“Legislation could be passed banning DMVs from allowing cars with killer airbags. Or laws could be passed banning the sale of cars with killer airbags. Something must be done. Making it a do-it-yourself project for the owners doesn’t work.”
[For the complete q/a format Interview with Jerry Cox, 34 Corporate Crime Reporter 44(12), November 14, 2022, print edition only.]