Recall of dangerous Takata airbags leaves too many drivers asking ‘when’s my turn’

Published May 11
Updated May 11

APOLLO BEACH

Don Paugh splurged a little on the 2011 Lincoln MKZ, thinking it would be his last car.

Now 87, he still easily slides his lanky frame into the driverís seat. He enjoys the smooth ride and extra cool AC.

Seven years old, and still only one pea-sized chip blemishes the gleaming white paint. Even the love bugs swarming in his open Apollo Beach garage on a recent Tuesday morning kept their distance.

Paugh loves the luxury sedan. But heís also a little afraid of it.

He is one of millions of drivers still waiting on replacements for faulty Takata-made airbag inflators. Theyíve been described as "an immediate threat to safety." At least 20 people worldwide have died and hundreds more were permanently disfigured when the inflators deployed, spraying some of the victims with shrapnel.

As of March, more than half of the 50 million recalled inflators still needed replacing, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thatís 10 years after the initial Takata recall, four years after regulators began investigating, and two years after the NHTSA took over managing the recall.

Thatís too long.

Independent reports and congressional inquiries have concluded that too many of the 19 car makers involved in the recall havenít handled it well. They arenít moving fast enough to make repairs and they arenít providing enough alternatives for their customers, like better access to rental cars.

Paughís first recall notice showed up in July 2016. Since then, heís tried four times to get the Lincolnís passenger-side airbag replaced, and has the paperwork to prove it. Each time, his Ford dealer has told him they donít have the parts. Be patient, heís told. The last letter indicated "Spring of 2018." Like the previous letter, it also stated:

"The airbag inflator could rupture during deployment in a crash and cause injuries or death."

"Two years ago, when I first read that line, I didnít feel that good about it," Paugh said. "But Iíve gotten more frustrated as they keep repeating how dangerous it is. If itís that bad, they should do something about it."

Paugh understands from his eight years running an auto body shop in Fort Wayne, Ind., that businesses make mistakes. But he also knows that itís how they respond to adversity that really matters.

Heís disappointed that the carmakers havenít worked harder to find a solution for the "little guys." After all, since the recall began, the car companies have managed to pump out tens of millions of new cars, all with properly functioning airbags.

"They canít find a fix for the older cars?" he wondered.

Some of the car companies have said parts are available; that drivers just need to respond to the recall notices. Donít tell that to St. Petersburgís Harriet Bruyn, who owns a 2012 Ford Fusion that needs a new passenger-side airbag.

The 81-year-old Wisconsin transplant has contacted her dealer three or four times since March 2017, only to be told each time that parts werenít available. In December, she asked the dealer what else she could do. Try calling Ford directly, they said. She did. The response: "Call your dealer."

The rigmarole tests her Midwestern civility.

"Itís annoying to be chided for supposedly not trying to do something about it," she said, standing next to her white Fusion. "Weíve tried many times."

Most drivers, like Paugh and Bruyn, have been told their cars are safe enough to keep driving as they wait for the repair. Others are driving with particularly dangerous airbag inflators, often described as "ticking time bombs."

Earlier this week, for instance, the highway safety administration urged owners of certain 2006 Ford Rangers and 2006 B-series Mazda pickups to park them immediately. They contain what are known as "Alpha" airbags that are at a far higher risk of exploding in a crash. The two carmakers have offered to pay for towing to the closest dealer.

News like that only pushes owners like Paugh and Bruyn farther back in the repair line. It doesnít help that the auto world is buzzing about how millions more cars and trucks could be added to the recall in coming months. The repairs might not be completed until 2023, some industry experts predict.

Thatís five more years for this monster recall to ensnare, and frustrate, more Don Paughs and Harriet Bruyns.

In the meantime, Paugh drives a little less and tries to keep the trips short when his wife is in the passenger seat. He puts extra space between other vehicles on drives to the supermarket and South Shore United Methodist Church.

"Iíd like us to feel safe in our own car again," he said.

 
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