More than 155,000 cars are still on Australian roads with “ticking time bombs” – approximately 180,000 potentially deadly Takata airbags which can spray shrapnel when deployed in a crash.
So far in Australia there have been at least two deaths and two serious injuries attributed to the faulty airbags, whose explosive material deteriorates over time and deploys with deadly force.
More than two dozen car brands – and more than 100 popular models – sold from the late 1990s through to 2017 have been caught up in the biggest automotive recall in Australia and the world, which has been running in various guises since 2015.
More than 100 million vehicles have been affected globally by the Takata airbag recall, including 4.1 million airbags in 2.89 million cars in Australia. Some vehicles require more than one airbag to be replaced.
All vehicles must be repaired or accounted for by 31 December 2020, however authorities are yet to outline what fines will be imposed on car makers or vehicle owners if an airbag is not replaced by the deadline.
Some state transport authorities have banned the sale, transfer, or registration renewal of cars equipped with the most volatile types of Takata airbag.
In some instances, authorities have warned customers to stop driving their vehicles immediately and directed them to have the vehicle towed – at the car company’s expense – to a dealership where the airbag will be replaced or the vehicle bought back.
However, the harshest measures are yet to apply to airbags responsible for the two known deaths in Australia, leaving industry insiders frustrated that some customers believe certain Takata airbags are more dangerous than others.
“The reality is, any one of these airbags can kill, and it gives the public a false sense of security to think some cars don’t need to be banned from the roads, while others do,” said an industry insider who has worked closely with Takata airbag replacement programs for a major car company.
“Every one of these airbags needs to be replaced because, while some are more volatile than others today, the others will eventually become extremely volatile as they age.”
So far, Australian car makers combined have an 89.2 per cent clearance rate, with the latest figures showing 3.66 million airbag inflators have been replaced in about 2.68 million vehicles (an 87.8 per cent clearance rate).
This leaves 180,869 airbag inflators in 155,351 vehicles awaiting replacement, according to the latest figures from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
An additional 262,725 airbags (6.4 per cent of those recalled) in 218,393 vehicles (7.1 per cent of those recalled) were reported as written off, unregistered for more than two years, exported, scrapped, stolen, or modified and unable to have the airbag replaced.
The automotive industry is concerned deadly Takata airbags in vehicles “unregistered for more than two years” could still be in circulation, and the devices may end up being used as spare parts and fitted to a registered car of the same type.
Authorities are yet to say how they will clear vehicles that have been unregistered for two years.
When asked what penalty car makers will face if they don’t account for every vehicle on their list, a statement from ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said: “The ACCC is monitoring replacement rates and liaising with (car companies) given the impact of COVID-19. If there is any indication manufacturers will not meet the target completion rate, the ACCC expects manufacturers to take steps to ensure that early remediation”.
However, it appears the deadline could be extended in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
“Manufacturers have ongoing obligations beyond 31 December 2020 until they can demonstrate 100 per cent actual replacement,” said the ACCC. “The recall notice allows manufacturers to apply to the ACCC for an extension, but must provide reasons for the ACCC’s consideration.”
The ACCC says it has already “issued infringement notices for conduct related to the Takata compulsory recall” but did not outline the cost of the penalty or which companies were fined.
“These airbags are extremely dangerous and have the potential to misdeploy, sending sharp metal fragments into the vehicle cabin at high speed, with the potential to kill or seriously injure the occupants,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said in a media statement.
“It is essential that you do not ignore or delay responding to notices about the recalls from your manufacturer. If your vehicle is under active recall, please act now to arrange for a free replacement.”
In one of the fatalities attributed to a faulty Takata airbag in Australia, the vehicle owner had received multiple recall notices and had booked the car in, but needed to reschedule just days before the crash.
The ACCC says at least 6000 of the remaining 155,000 vehicles should stop driving immediately.
“These vehicles contain the highest risk ‘critical’ airbags, and states and territories will be de-registering them to take them off our roads. If your vehicle contains a ‘critical’ airbag, you should stop driving it immediately and contact the manufacturer to arrange for it to be towed or a technician to be sent to you so the airbag can be replaced,” Ms Rickard said in a media statement.
Meanwhile, consumers who imported a vehicle directly into Australia from overseas are urged to contact the vehicle manufacturer’s Australian office to see if it is affected by the recall, “and those who imported a vehicle using a business in Australia should check this with the business, and arrange airbag replacements if needed,” the ACCC said.
Despite the challenges created by travel restrictions during the coronavirus crisis, the latest figures from the ACCC show more than 40,000 vehicles have had their airbags replaced over the past three months, and a further 2250 vehicles have been identified as no longer on the road.
On average, more than 3100 airbags have been replaced each day since the recall became compulsory in Australia in March 2018.
The recall initially commenced in Australia in 2015 as a voluntary recall. Not all vehicles were included at first because the airbag industry needed time to ramp up production of replacement parts.
Older cars were prioritised as their airbags were deemed more volatile, but now the industry is under immense pressure to clear or account for all remaining vehicles.