Federal officials said Friday a Georgia man was killed on December 22 when the airbag in his 2006 Ford Ranger pickup ruptured following an accident along a South Carolina road. The male victim, whose identity was not released, is the ninth known fatality in the United States linked to the defective airbags.
He's the first to be killed in a vehicle in the US other than a Honda, a troubling development that will lead to a recall of approximately 1 million vehicles from five different manufacturers. Details on specific makes and vehicle models involved in the new recalls were still being processed Friday afternoon, but they involve Ford, Audi, Volkswagen, Mazda and Daimler vehicles.
Separately, federal officials said Friday that a defect in a different type of Takata airbag inflators will necessitate a recall of 4 million more vehicles.
"We may never know the reasons for this rupture, but we believe we need to take aggressive action." - Gordon Trowbridge
Together, the two recalls for 5 million more cars are the latest in a string of dozens that date back more than a decade linked to the deadly airbags, which can rupture upon deployment and spray motorists with lethal amounts of shrapnel. Including Friday's vehicles, approximately 24 million airbags in 19 million vehicles are affected nationwide, though officials said that number was subject to change. It stands as the largest recall in U.S. history.
Friday's developments are the latest in what National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesperson Gordon Trowbridge called a "massive safety crisis precipitated by the fact Takata provided misleading, incomplete and inaccurate information. ... Today's developments remind us of the size of the challenge and the continuing risk to the public."
Government officials have been conducting public-awareness campaigns to alert motorists to the dangerous threats lurking in their vehicles while simultaneously investigating Takata's handling of the airbag crisis, which started more than a decade ago. In November, safety regulators fined the company $70 million for deceptions and delays in reporting the defect.
Officials confirmed the link between the airbag and the man's death during an inspection of the vehicle that took place Friday. Representatives from Ford, Takata and NHTSA conducted the examination of the Ranger. A family attorney notified them of the possible connection last week.
To date, some 2006 Ford Rangers had been recalled because of Takata-related airbag problems in the passenger-side inflators. Driver-side inflators had not been previously recalled in the '06 Rangers. The airbags responsible for the latest fatality contained ammonium nitrate, the controversial compound that many experts believe has contributed to the airbag explosions. While no definitive link has been made between the chemical and the explosive airbags, other suppliers don't use ammonium nitrate, and per its consent order with federal regulators, Takata has agreed to phase it out of production.
While the '06 Rangers had not been recalled for driver-side Takata airbags, the '04 and '05 models were recalled following an investigation prompted by the death of a Malaysian woman in July 2014. Her Honda vehicle contained the same type of inflators used in the Ranger, so in October 2014, NHTSA officials asked Ford to conduct a regional parts-collection campaign for 2004 and 2005 Rangers located in high-humidity portions of the United States.
"This is a widespread issue and there could be many dangerous vehicles unwittingly on the road." - Rebecca Lindland
Inflators collected from those recalls were tested. Federal officials said Friday that of 1,900 inflators tested from that recall, none ruptured during the tests. Of an additional 1,600 subjected to a more thorough test that involved measuring the pressure, no anomalies were recorded, Trowbridge said.
"We do not know why this one ruptured when there were no anomalies in the others," he said Friday. "We may never know the reasons for this rupture, but we believe we need to take aggressive action."
One day earlier, NHTSA officials said automakers conducted 868 national recalls in 2015, the most ever recorded. Motorists, they said, can check a national database of recalls using their vehicle identification numbers (VINs) to see if there are any open recalls on their vehicles, though they said vehicles affected by Friday's developments would not yet be available. Other industry insiders said Friday the onus shouldn't be up to consumers to go in search of information on whether their cars contained Takata airbags.
"The manufacturers need to exhaustively research and aggressively reach out to owners to get the airbags fixed," said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "... This is a widespread issue and there could be many dangerous vehicles unwittingly on the road."