airbag label on steering wheel

Takata airbag recall: What you need to know

August 2018 update: You can now check if your vehicle is affected by the compulsory recall by searching for your registration plate or Vehicle Identification Number at RightCar.govt.nz.

April 2018 update: A compulsory recall now applies to vehicles fitted with older “alpha” generation airbags, while the remaining vehicles remain under voluntary recall.

Potentially defective airbags manufactured by the Japanese Takata company have been fitted to an estimated 100 million vehicles worldwide. While the faulty airbags have resulted in deaths and injuries in other countries, the recall remains voluntary in New Zealand.

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The issue

The problem is that the airbag inflator can be adversely affected by moisture, with the result being a chance the inflator could deploy with explosive force when in a crash. In the worst cases they have sent metal shards flying into the passenger cabin. Faulty Takata airbags have caused a reported 23 deaths and more than 230 injuries worldwide. While one death attributed to a faulty airbag has occurred in Australia, no fatalities or injuries have been reported here.

This isn’t a new issue. Manufacturers have been recalling vehicles with these faulty airbags since 2013. More vehicles get added as the manufacturers and Takata understand which airbags are problematic and which vehicles have them fitted. It isn’t just cheap or Japanese vehicles – the list includes most European manufacturers and luxury models from brands such as Ferrari and Jaguar.

Recall action

The recall is voluntary in New Zealand and was in Australia until yesterday. The Australian government has announced a compulsory recall of more than two million vehicles fitted with Takata airbags. Manufacturers have until the end of 2020 to replace the defective airbags, or face heavy fines. It’s reported that 1.7 million cars in Australia have already been fixed. The compulsory recall affects an additional 2.3 million vehicles.

Part of the problem is the scale of the recall. It’s impossible to co-ordinate the immediate replacement of airbags in 100 million vehicles worldwide. Takata is close to bankruptcy and struggling to supply enough replacement parts. Exacerbating the problem is that many early replacement airbag inflators need to be replaced again. Replacements are now either Takata models fitted with a desiccant drying agent to draw moisture out of the inflator, or parts from a different airbag manufacturer.

It’s not as simple as saying a vehicle fitted with a potentially defective Takata airbag is deadly. Not all of the recalled airbags will explode on deployment (in fact, it’s highly unlikely). However, there’s no way of telling which inflators are defective, so the recall includes all cars fitted with them as a preventative measure.

“Alpha” airbags most at risk

Older “alpha” airbags (manufactured 11 to 16 years ago) are most at risk, especially if the car’s in a hot and humid environment. Of nearly four million vehicles affected in Australia, about 115,000 have alpha model airbags: 89,000 of those have been replaced. The Australian government has told manufacturers vehicles with alpha inflators are a top priority. Manufacturers will have to follow a strict schedule to have cars repaired. Cars in areas of high heat and humidity are of the highest priority, followed by cars that are older than six years.

The Motor Industry Association (MIA) estimates 300,000 or more vehicles in New Zealand are affected, with many being used-imports. Those are subject to recalls in their country of origin – mostly Japan. The MIA and NZTA reported in September that 140,000 Kiwi motorists had been advised replacement inflators were available, and about half had taken their vehicles in for the fix.

The current situation New Zealand

Since the issue came to light in 2013, less than a quarter of vehicles with affected airbags on our roads have been fixed. That’s a poor return. If the recall and fix rate doesn’t improve voluntarily, our government needs to consider making it mandatory.

We have no reported incidents and enjoy a temperate climate, rather than the hot and humid conditions linked with these airbag failures. However, we’re not in the clear. We have an old vehicle fleet – averaging almost 14 years old – so it’s likely a higher proportion of our vehicles will be fitted with older alpha airbags. We think more needs to be done by manufacturers to identify and fix these vehicles as a priority.

What to do

  • Check to see if your vehicle is part of the compulsory alpha recall. You can search the database of alpha recalled vehicles by registration plate or Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) here. The database includes BMW, Honda, Lexus, Mazda, Subaru and Toyota models. It will be updated with other manufacturers as further information becomes available.

  • Check to see if your vehicle is part of the wider (voluntary) recall. You can look for NZ-new models here or find a list of used-import models recalled in Japan here. The lists are always being updated, as more makes and models are implicated, so keep checking.

  • If your car is on the recall list, the manufacturer will contact you. Make sure your contact details are up to date here.

  • If you are contacted by the manufacturer, take your car in and get it fixed. It won’t cost you anything.

  • If you have a used-import that arrived in New Zealand in 2015 or 2016, which is part of the recall, check if the airbag has been disabled by following the guidelines here. You must take the car to an authorised dealer to have it reconnected, as it will not pass a WOF otherwise, and the safety issue of having no airbag far outweighs the risk of having a recalled airbag fitted and active. The car will need the airbag inflator replaced as part of the recall.

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