IT was recently confirmed by Honda Malaysia that the Takata single stage (SDI) driver’s airbag inflator in a 2005 Honda City ruptured in a crash on June 26, 2016 in Selangor. The crash resulted in the tragic death of the driver.
Globally, over 100 million airbags are being recalled to facilitate the replacement of the inflator. In Malaysia, close to 400,000 cars are affected.
Let’s understand how airbags work. Airbags are not filled with air. They are filled with gas created by a burning propellant. Propellants are used in jet aircraft to produce thrust, in the interiors of gun chambers, and in mining and demolition operations.
In airbags, the propellant is compressed into aspirin-size tablets and placed in a metal tube called an inflator. When a collision occurs, the tablets are ignited and converted into gas which erupts out of the inflator and into the bag in milliseconds.
The US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and its independent expert reviewed the studies of three independent investigations into the Takata airbag ruptures and confirmed the findings on the root cause of the inflator ruptures.
A combination of time, environmental moisture and fluctuating high temperatures contribute to the degradation of the ammonium nitrate propellant in the inflators. Such degradation can cause the propellant to burn too quickly, rupturing the inflator module and sending shrapnel through the airbag and into the vehicle’s occupants.
Of the four makers of airbag inflators worldwide, only Takata uses an ammonium nitrate chemical compound to produce a controlled explosion to launch the bag during a collision. The chemicals have proven to become unstable over time, especially in humid conditions. Thirteen people have been killed in the US and Malaysia after their Takata bags unintentionally deployed, sending shrapnel into drivers or passengers.
It is obvious that stronger measures are needed to prevent airbag accidents and deaths. Unlike the NHTSA, no regulatory body in Malaysia has so far come out firmly to address this issue with a sense of urgency.
Although car companies like Honda have stated that they have sent letters advising owners to change the inflator, the communication does not explicitly raise how serious the issue is, i.e that failure to do so can lead to death, as what has happened already.
Their key message on Facebook in the aftermath of the most recent death was that airbags can be changed for free.
In the current recall, owners are being told there are no spare parts and they are not sure when the parts can be supplied. When questioned if the cars are safe to drive, they don’t really want to commit.
Why is the option of disabling the airbag, while waiting, not being considered?
In America, auto manufacturers have been given a time frame for the air bag recall to be completed and the NHTSA worked with other airbag manufacturers to increase the supply of spare parts.
The Transport Ministry (MOT) and JPJ should be the regulatory body in Malaysia for monitoring and putting in place punitive measures to safeguard consumers. As a starting point, MOT must form a special task force comprising, among others, officers from JPJ, Malaysia Institute of Road Safety Research, Customs Department, Malaysia Automotive Institute and Malaysia Automotive Association and the affected auto makers to initiate specific measures to address this situation.
The first step would be to ensure adequate supply of spare parts. Any form of duty must be waived for these parts. A time frame by which all defective parts must be replaced should also be established.
Service centres must stay open for longer hours and over the weekends.
JPJ must share ownership details at no cost to auto makers to get in touch with owners who are hard to trace.
If auto makers are reluctant to be forthright in their communication in the belief that it might affect their brand in a negative manner, a third party like the MOT can front such campaigns to educate car owners.
Put in place punitive measures for recalcitrant owners.
Inform them that no road tax will be issued for their vehicles if the fault is not rectified within the time frame. Insurance companies too should consider a loading.
Ultimately, a decision has to be made to make sure the cars are safe to be driven, as even one death is one too many. When that decision is made, adequate compensation should be offered.
B. J. FERNANDEZ