Nov 24, 2014
Highway deaths have been linked to airbags manufactured by Takata Corporation that spew metal when they inflate. Deaths have also been linked to rear gas tank fires in Chrysler Jeep SUVs that catch on fire in rear end collisions.
Pretending to address the problem, recent U.S. Senate hearings made the news, showing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials in the hot seat. Officials defended their practice of limited recalls, citing insufficient evidence of risk. (Perhaps regulators could serve as crash test dummies for further research?)
But the pace of the recalls is only the tip of the iceberg. The problem goes deeper, because the “fixes” proposed by manufacturers are horribly insufficient.
In the case of the airbags, a New York Times investigation has revealed that in addition to problems of airbag inflators not being properly sealed, another problem has surfaced. A cheaper airbag propellant is at the center of the crisis.
To increase profits, Takata pressured their researchers in Michigan to find a cheaper compound for inflating airbags. In 2001 the company switched to the new compound: ammonium nitrate. According to an explosives expert at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, it is “unbelievably cheap” but “it shouldn’t be used in airbags.” This is because it breaks down over time. Its sensitivity to temperature swings and humidity can cause it to become more explosive.
The head of safety for Takata just testified before a U.S. Senate Committee that while ammonium nitrate did have some unstable properties, it could be controlled. Consistent with this cavalier attitude, the New York Times has learned that replacement Takata airbags being installed in recalled vehicles – still contain ammonium nitrate!
In the case of Chrysler, the “fix” for exploding gas tanks is – to install a trailer hitch to “protect” the gas tank. But the NHTSA just acknowledged that the trailer hitches do not protect drivers in high-speed crashes – the type of crashes in which the agency says 51 deaths have already occurred!
But at least they both look like they’re doing something. For the corporations – problem solved!
The Senate and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are succeeding at their real job: protecting auto industry profits. But at protecting people, they are miserable failures!