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A demonstration of an airbag in action. (Getty)
By many standards, the car accident was routine. By many standards, the car accident was routine.

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 peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed @PeterCBigelow.


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  • 59 Comments
      • 1 Year Ago
      before I saw the paycheck ov $9741, I didn't believe ...that...my neighbours mother was like really bringing home money in there spare time from there new laptop.. there uncles cousin haz done this for under twelve months and by now repaid the loans on their appartment and bought themselves a Cadillac. this is where I went,......... Zoo80.ℂom
      • 1 Year Ago
      I question your data and what are you qualifications to make these statements. I'm and M.E. and persoanlly designed and ran over 150 crash tests to analyize not only vehicles but airbags. You never mentioned that airbags do wear out and have to be replaced. You make statements about people have their ear almost taken off. How can fabric do that? I rolled cars, ran them in the wall, T-boned them, rear ended them and never have seen what you claim. Also airbags do a diagnostic evertime you start your car. That means there is an issue. How many of these people ignore the airbag lights. You data does not back up your story.
        HAT1701D
        • 1 Year Ago
        Something only "wears out" if it is continuously used again and again. The airbags might degrade over time, they do not wear out. As a general rule, people probably cannot afford to replace them AND this is the first time since I started driving in 1986 that I have ever, EVER heard anyone say they need replaced anytime other than after they have been deployed. However, to repeat a quote from a famous fictional character and "engineer" to boot; "The more they over make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain". Too much tech being stuffed inside the engine bay, under the dash and where ever else they can force it.
      A SMARTBARE
      • 1 Year Ago
      Airbags do work well, they do save lives. You don't hear about people going through windsheild like before airbags were around. We fix lots of cars in front end accidents that the bag don't deploy. Usually on a high up hit above the impact bar , the air bags dont always deploy, the car will normally absorb the energy from the crash.
      Koz
      • 1 Year Ago
      Cars maybe safer once you get in an accident but they cause more accidents now then every. All the pillars that support the roof are blind spot, you can actually lose traffic in them. The front and back of the cars are no longer visible, so you can actually bump into the other car when trying to part. The last problem is they just about let anyone drive these days.
        Bill
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Koz
        YES! My wife makes fun of me when I refer to her KIA Sportage as our rolling family blind spot, but that's exactly what it is. Sure miss my old Camaros...and back then we all thought you couldn't see out of them!
      Erbie's
      • 1 Year Ago
      Ran into ditch, won't get into details, tore front end off van, and until this article never thought about it, even though grill knocked out and fenders rubbing front tires, air bags never deployed, 2005 Astro? Wonder why, still have side effects from accident.
        m_handy
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Erbie's
        The first impact was likely below the bumper line, or the accelerometer sensed the van in an unusual direction from the normal angle. The airbags could have injured you worse if deployed. Hard to tell.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I was in an accident with a 2008 Ford Edge, air bags never deployed. When I brought it to the collision repair, they said they rarely see deployed airbags in Fords (even when they clearly should have deployed)....after reading the article, not sure that's good or bad.
      Mike
      • 1 Year Ago
      Several years ago, my wife was in an accident where her vehicle impacted a concrete pillar. There was severe damage to the front end of the car, enough for the insurance company to declare it a total loss. Much to my surprise, when I looked at the car, I could see that the front airbags had never deployed. To the best of my knowledge, it was never reported, unless it was put in the police accident report. Does NHTSA have a hotline number to report such incidents? I strongly suspect that non deployments happen far more often then we know. This was on a 2000 Ford Taurus SE that was purchased brand new from a Ford dealership, so it if was a defective airbag unit, it came from one of Ford's suppliers and was factory installed. Thankfully, my wife had her lap and shoulder belts on, so her injuries were minimal, but I wonder how many others aren't as lucky?
      Laura
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have been in two car accidents, and the only injuries I have ever recieved were from the air bags. I recieved burns from them both times.
        itsmegp46
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Laura
        Those air bags saved you from far worse injuries. Count your blessings.
      handyhippie65
      • 1 Year Ago
      and this is why i will never own an auto with airbags. let's put a computer controlled explosive in my car. yea, right. not mine.
        xraybrain
        • 1 Year Ago
        @handyhippie65
        I dont like air bags either. But you stated you will never buy a car with air bags? Don't all cars sold in the USA (new) require air bags?....or do you mean you would only buy older pre-airbag cars.
      hdgoose
      • 1 Year Ago
      Get rid of airbags. NASCAR drivers crash doing 180mph and walk away without airbags. Why not just use NASCAR safety equip in regular vehicles instead?
        bobrav
        • 1 Year Ago
        @hdgoose
        Well, the carbon fiber seat that keeps the average NASCAR driver from injury cost $15,000. Got any other ideas?
        wmandruby
        • 1 Year Ago
        @hdgoose
        I totally agree with you. The 4-point seat belts are a much better design and fit more people.
      freeetob
      • 1 Year Ago
      In my high school driver ed class many years ago (pre-airbags) we were told to hold the steering wheel at the "ten minutes 'til two o'clock" position. In my last AARP safe driving course we were told to hold our steering wheel at the "twenty minutes 'til four o'clock" position to avoid having our hands blown off by a deploying airbag. It has happened.
        m_handy
        • 1 Year Ago
        @freeetob
        Actually, if you read your owner's manual, it will have specific placement for your hands, based on the specifications of the explosives and how the steering wheel peels open. Some split in the center, horizontally, some split vertically and open side to side. I've had an airbag deployment, and it ain't fun. It was at night, and the other driver in a black VOlvo turbo ran a red light at 70mph. Never saw him, just a flash when the airbags went off. I thought that a plane had crashed. Luck for me a cop saw the whole thing.
      mastercommentor
      • 1 Year Ago
      "We're seeing a wide range of problems associated with some of the newer technology that's not working very well," always trying to re-invent the wheel! if it aint broke, DONT FIX IT !
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