On April 16, 2010, Vernon Holmes was traveling more than 55 miles per hour along Route 40 westbound near Elkton, Md. At Marley Road, a woman pulled into the intersection, directly into the path of his Nissan Murano. He T-boned her passenger side.
Both sustained minor injuries. Ambulances arrived, and in the chaos, Holmes didn't realize something was missing. It wasn't until a paramedic asked him about his airbags that he realized they hadn't gone off. "I said, 'What airbags?'" Holmes recalled.
In the past six months, the number of airbag-related recalls has more than doubled. The malfunctions causing these recalls increase the chance these life-saving devices could fail when they're needed most.
In many cases, drivers like Holmes are finding their airbags are not deploying in serious car accidents. In others, motorists are reporting their airbags are randomly deploying during accident-free driving. And in extreme incidents, air bags are deploying and showering occupants with shrapnel, sometimes with disfiguring or fatal consequences.
Automakers have issued 22 airbag-related recalls in the past six months, according to an analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records, compared to 10 in the previous six-month period. In 2012, automakers set a dubious record, with 23 airbag-related recalls. With 15 already, 2013 is on pace to top that figure.
"We're seeing a wide range of problems associated with some of the newer technology that's not working very well," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies.
The 22 most-recent airbag recalls have affected every corner of the auto industry, involving 13 different automakers and seven different suppliers. At least 3.8 million cars, some built as long as 12 years ago and some as new as the '13 model year, have been covered. Eight of the 22 have involved Takata, a global supplier of airbags.
Airbags rely on sophisticated software that senses a crash within milliseconds, and must calculate which airbags are needed -- frontal, side, curtain, or knee. They deploy with significant force, with the intent to keep the passengers back in their seats and inside the car. They can shatter the windshield and have been known to break people's noses. NHTSA estimates they save approximately 3,000 lives per year.
But many people don't know much about what airbag products are underneath their dashboards. Kane said that ignorance was a worrisome trend for motorists concerned about their safety. "There's very little a consumer can do except trust the manufacturer, which we know isn't always warranted," he said.
Cases in point: NHTSA's database contains hundreds of complaints about airbag failures that have caused dozens of injuries. Many of these complaints led to the recent recalls, but only after long investigations. Sometimes the investigations didn't start until years after the first complaints were lodged. Among them:
- A 2003 Nissan Maxima was in an accident where it was sandwiched between two pickup trucks. The passenger-side airbag deployed, but not the driver-side airbag. The force of the accident was enough to render the car a total loss. The driver stated he or she attempted to alert Nissan to the failure, but for five weeks, was met with "general apathy" from the carmaker. The car wasn't recalled until last month, seven-and-a-half years after the accident.
- On April 7, 2012, the driver of a Hyundai Elantra said his or her left ear was partially severed by shrapnel that exploded out of a side-curtain airbag. "Sliced by ear in half ... could have been my neck," the driver wrote. A recall wasn't issued for the car until April 1, 2013.
- Another Nissan Maxima driver complained simply that "the passenger's side airbag deployed while driving at approximately 70 mph. The vehicle was not involved in an accident." The car was recalled this April, almost a decade after the accident.
NHTSA, the public agency charged with investigating safety defects in motor vehicles and protecting the public, had no comment on the rise in airbag defects.
Older cars, more problems?
Potential problems can linger for longer than a decade, posing risks to unsuspecting motorists. Five of the most recent recalls, issued in April, involve Takata airbags installed in vehicles as early as 2001.
In written notes, NHTSA investigators say some of Takata's front passenger-side airbag inflators could provide excessive pressure in an accident, resulting in metal shrapnel striking occupants.
That's exactly what happened to Guddi Rathore. On Christmas Eve, she was driving a 2001 Honda Accord with her three children inside. A mail truck struck her car. It was a minor fender-bender that caused little automotive damage. But the Takata-supplied airbag exploded and showered Rathore with shrapnel, severing arteries in her neck.
Rathore, 33, bled to death in front of her children, said Elizabeth West, her family's attorney. The family has since settled a lawsuit against Honda and Takata, one that contains a confidentiality agreement that prevents them from further discussing the accident.
The shrapnel issue had been known long before Rathore was killed. NHTSA fielded the first of 278 airbag-related complaints about the 2001 Honda Accord on August 22, 2001. It took nearly eight years before Honda issued its first recall, on July 8, 2009, to address the Takata airbag problem.
Last month, Honda issued its fourth recall to address it. Mike Accavitti, senior vice president of automobile operations at American Honda, said that in the wake of the multiple recalls, Honda is continuing to refine its process in testing the competency of its suppliers.
"I can't tell you the specific things we've learned yet, but there's a team of much smarter people than I working on making sure what happened never happens again," he said.
But the recall demonstrates how slowly the automakers respond to these kinds of problems, and how thorny they can be to resolve.
"This latest Takata recall is particularly troubling, because it's a different animal, and also an animal we've known about for a number of years," Kane said. "It's troubling because it keeps coming. We see this rolling recall, and it raises some real questions about Takata and Honda's ability to manage this problem."
Honda is not the only automaker affected by Takata.
The problem, a ruptured airbag housing, triggered recalls from Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Mazda, which all use Takata as an airbag supplier. Combined, 18 different car models across their four lineups were affected, a number that highlights the complexity of global operations, in which many companies share components from the same supplier.
Such sharing has only increased in recent years. It helps automakers save money, savings that can be passed along to consumers. But it also leaves the car companies vulnerable to large-scale problems such as the Takata recalls.
"That's something that the industry is going to have to deal with as the manufacturers look to global platforms," said Mike Wall, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive. "They need to balance that with rigorous testing of parts and reliability. It's a delicate act."
One little wafer problem
Takata learned of this problem as early as October 2011, according to records the company filed with NHTSA, 14 months before Rathore's fatal encounter with her airbag.
The company discovered a little part inside the airbags, called the propellant wafers, hadn't been manufactured correctly. Over time, pressure built up inside the airbag housing when the wafer degraded. And when the airbag deployed, it sprayed passengers with the metal and plastic parts that held the airbag in place.
Company spokesperson Alby Berman said Takata was supporting affected automakers through the recall process with technical analysis and replacement parts. He deferred further comment to the automakers.
Asked what lessons there were to be learned from the more recent recall, Honda's Accavitti said, "Don't buy bad parts. ... In all seriousness, we're investigating."
Airbag recalls on the rise
Experts expect the number of airbag-related recalls to increase.
Newer technology related to occupant-detection systems is complicated and more prone to problems. Cars are lasting longer, but aging vehicles can degrade and cause problems. And the manufacturers' move to global platforms -- where hundreds of thousands of units share the same components -- turn small problems into global issues.
If there's a silver lining somewhere in there, Wall says the industry has become much more proactive in identifying problems and taking action.
"I know 'recall' isn't a word anyone likes to hear, but the numbers, to me, are a manifestation of the industry working the way it should," he said. "That's the good side of this, correcting the problems."
But for consumers, there's not much they can do about those problems until after the fact. While his car was being repaired, Holmes said he wrote letters about his faulty airbags to the Department of Transportation, Nissan, the Maryland Department of Transportation and NHTSA.
A Nissan spokesperson said a technician inspected the car in the field, but that event data records were not recovered because the right equipment was not available. Nissan tried to re-schedule the appointment, but the company said Holmes refused.
Holmes tells a different version of events. He said he repeatedly contacted Nissan, that the car was at the dealership being repaired for several weeks, and that it took two months for Nissan to even return his phone calls.
"They told me that since her car was so slow, it absorbed the force," he said. "I said to him, 'You're out there selling lemons with airbags that don't deploy.' That was the end of our conversation."
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed @PeterCBigelow.