Takata must confront airbag threat

The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 22:

It’s been six years since a Virginia woman bled to death in front of her children after the airbag in her Honda Accord exploded, sending shards of metal into her neck and chest. Seven months earlier, an 18-year-old cheerleader in California died the same way after a fender-bender in a school parking lot.

Despite these and four other deaths, defective Takata airbags remain curled in the steering wheels of some 34 million American cars, putting 1 in 7 U.S. drivers at risk of death or serious injury. The record-breaking recall announced May 19 will fix the problem, but at an infuriatingly slow pace. The Tokyo-based Takata Corp. must deliver replacements before more lives are lost.

The safety of its airbags has been in question for 15 years, but Takata admitted culpability only under the duress of a $14,000-a-day fine levied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in February. The NHTSA was fed up with the Japanese manufacturer’s insufficient answers to questions about the horrific deaths and more than 100 injuries. It also has an aggressive new director, Mark Rosekind, who took over the agency in December.

The expanded recall affects 11 automakers, including Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler. Because the affected parts seem to corrode in humid conditions, car owners in the South will have first priority while a backlog exists. (To find out if your car is affected, enter your vehicle identification number at www.safercar.gov. But check back in a few weeks, since federal transportation officials say the numbers may grow.)

Meanwhile, there’s no reason the nation should hold its breath and hope for the best. Toyota recommends temporarily disabling airbags in affected cars, and both Toyota and General Motors say no passengers should sit in the front until the car is fixed. Consumer Reports, meanwhile, has urged Takata to issue loaner cars or vouchers for rental cars.

Toyota’s move to disable airbags temporarily is controversial, since airbags save about 2,000 lives a year. For now, that’s small comfort to nervous drivers, who have more reason than ever to be careful out there.