24 Jul 2017

'Same dangerous airbags' being deployed in Australia - report

9:05 am on 24 July 2017

Faulty Takata airbags linked to 18 deaths globally and the world's biggest recall in automotive history are being replaced by new faulty airbags, according to a report by Australian consumer group Choice.

A car with airbag inflated.

A file photo shows a car with its airbag inflated Photo: 123RF

A three-month investigation by the group found more than two thirds of the 2.1 million cars recalled in Australia still have not had their faulty airbags replaced, with car owners being told by manufacturers that there is a minimum six-month wait.

Choice also found that a number of car manufacturers - including BMW, Toyota, Mazda, Lexus and Subaru - have been replacing the airbags with identical devices as a temporary fix.

"Refitting vehicles with the same dangerous airbags still leaves people driving ticking time-bombs," Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey said.

The airbags' inflators contain ammonium nitrate propellants which can become volatile with age when exposed to changing temperatures, humidity and moisture.

This may cause them to explode and propel shrapnel into drivers and passengers. The shards have been known to puncture people's eyes, face, neck and chest.

In one case in the United States the injuries suffered by the victim were so severe that police thought he had been shot in the face.

More than 180 injuries have been recorded worldwide, prompting the recall of 100 million vehicles globally. In the US, one in four cars are affected.

In New Zealand, the affected vehicle brands are: BMW, Chrysler, Daihatsu, GM, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. This country is believed to have about 300,000 vehicles affected by the recall.

Takata, which filed for bankruptcy protection in Japan last month, anticipates the recall will not be completed until the end of 2019.

Fatal Sydney crash linked to defective airbag

Just days before Choice's investigation was released, police confirmed Australia's first fatality from a faulty airbag.

A 58-year-old driver in Sydney's south-west was fatally struck in the neck by an object which is believed to have come from the exploding airbag. He was driving a Honda CRV.

A 21-year-old woman in Darwin was also injured in April and remains in hospital with severe head injuries. Toyota has confirmed her Rav4 was part of its recall campaign.

Mr Godfrey told the ABC he did not believe the automotive industry was doing enough to raise public awareness.

"Unfortunately I think in Australia this recall has largely flown under the radar," he said.

"TV advertising is critical. A mass market medium gets the message home to consumers that there is a problem.

"We know that when car companies are trying to flog you a car that they will bombard you with TV and radio ads, and yet when it comes time to get a safety message home to you that you need to act, these ads are sadly lacking."

Choice is calling for changes to the Australian Consumer Law and stronger penalties to ensure manufacturers do not replace dangerous products with defective new ones.

Some of the recalled vehicles in Australia date as far back as 1999.

A number of engineers in the late 1990s had warned Takata about the danger but were ignored. Earlier this year federal prosecutors in the US brought criminal charges against three Takata executives and fined the Japanese auto-parts maker $US1 billion for concealing information about the faulty airbags.

Professor Chris Rowley from Kellogg College at the University of Oxford said Takata was able to get away with the faulty products for a long period of time because Japanese corporations lacked a whistleblowing culture.

"Japan in the 1990s with the post bubble crisis made redundancies in corporations and it sort of put out a sway of middle managers, the connector between the shop floor and senior executives," he said.

"Once they'd gone, how does the shop floor worker approach the senior executive? It is never going to happen.

"You would never approach a superior with that sort of issue. So if you're on the shop floor and you know this is going on, you have nowhere to turn."

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is urging motorists with a car affected by the recall to contact their local dealership or the manufacturer of the vehicle.

Deaths linked to Takata airbags

Sources: AP archives, Center for Auto Safety, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Honda Motor Co., legal documents and police reports

- ABC / RNZ

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs