Editorial: Moving quickly to protect public safety

Published Oct. 23, 2014

Federal regulators this week took the unusual step of urging the owners of automobiles with faulty airbags to immediately seek repairs, noting that the devices can explode and result in serious injury or death. This is what regulators should be doing, loudly ringing the alarm at the first sign of systemic trouble and holding manufacturers accountable for faulty products. Car manufacturers, some of whom have been slow to notify customers about the airbag problems, should be transparent about defective products and move quickly to make repairs. There is no excuse for delays when the public's safety is at risk.

Word of widespread problems with airbags made by Takata, a Japanese auto supplier, first surfaced in June. Takata said the propellant inside its airbags could produce too much pressure when ignited and cause the bags to rupture, sending shards of metal into drivers and front-seat passengers. That announcement triggered a recall of more than 14 million cars worldwide from 11 different manufacturers, including Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, BMW and General Motors. At least one carmaker, Honda, has said it will alert customers about the problem as replacement parts become available. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants more immediate action, particularly in areas with high humidity, including Florida and Puerto Rico. Earlier this month, Orlando resident Hien Tran died after the airbags deployed in her Honda Accord and sent shards of metal into her neck. Tran's is at least the third death associated with the airbag malfunctions.

The airbag issue comes amid a record-breaking year for automobile recalls in the United States. The most notable case was at GM, which initially failed to issue recalls of its small cars with faulty ignition switches that when jostled could shut down the engine. The company and federal regulators knew about the problem for more than a decade and finally issued a widespread recall in February. At least 29 deaths have been associated with the problem.

Some manufacturers have not learned from the GM debacle. Honda, for example, discovered problems with faulty airbags in 2004, according to the New York Times. But its first recall didn't occur until 2008, when it targeted only a relatively small number of cars. Federal regulators also were slow to react, which once again raises issues about the government's lax oversight of carmakers.

It is unconscionable that manufacturers of cars and faulty car components would allow drivers to remain on the road for years without warning them about product defects. Those manufacturers have a responsibility to be as open about a product's flaws as they are about its selling features.

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More than 50 million automobiles have been recalled this year, leading to an understandably jaded reaction each time carmakers issue a new warning. But car owners cannot afford to tune out. Regulators said this week that the long list of cars that contain faulty airbags is likely incomplete. When updates occur, the public and carmakers need to react responsibly.