Millions of Australians could be driving “ticking time bombs” linked to 18 deaths, as manufacturers struggle to deal with the biggest recall in car history.
About 2.3 million Australian cars were recalled in 2009 after being found to have been fitted with faulty Takata airbags, which can release metal shrapnel when deployed.
But two-thirds of the affected vehicles have still not had their airbags replaced, a Choice investigation has revealed.
And many of those that have been replaced, have been fitted with the same faulty airbag in question.
The recall has led to a shortage in parts, with some of the biggest car manufacturers — including Toyota, Honda, Subaru, BMW and Lexus — conceding they replaced the faulty airbags with the same faulty product as a temporary fix.
“Refitting vehicles with the same dangerous airbags still leaves people driving ticking time-bombs,” Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey said.
The fault in the airbags develops over time due to exposure to moisture. When the airbag is deployed, it can explode and launch metal shards which have penetrated people’s eyes, face, neck, and chest.
With 100 million cars affected globally, manufacturers have struggled to meet the demand for replacement airbags. Some carmakers have asked customers to wait six months to have their airbags replaced due to shortages.
Some faulty airbags have been treated with a drying agent, but these may also degrade over time and require replacement.
Australia’s consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, on Monday announced it was investigating the recall.
“We would have very serious concerns if manufacturers were found to be misleading consumers about their car’s safety in breach of their obligations under consumer law,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said.
“Car manufacturers and retailers must let consumers know when they are having their car’s airbag replaced, what type of airbag it is being replaced with, and if it is likely to be the subject of another recall down the track.
“If consumers have already had their airbag replaced, they should contact their manufacturer for advice as to what kind of airbag it was replaced with and how long it is expected to last.”
The ACCC believes recall efforts have been improving, and carmakers now have sufficient stock to complete the recall.
However, Takata itself does not believe it will be completed until 2020.
Globally, 18 deaths and 180 injuries have been linked to the airbags.
Earlier this month, a 58-year-old man became the first Australian to die as a result of the airbags in a crash in Cabramatta, in Sydney’s south western suburbs.
In Darwin, a 21-year-old woman has spent more than two months in hospital after a piece of metal shot at her face in a minor car crash.
“This type of crash, in normal circumstances, would not have caused this level of injury,” Sergeant Mark Casey told Choice.
In two separate US car crashes, injuries were so extreme that investigators initially believed they were on the scene of a shooting or stabbing.
Airbags have been replaced in about 850,000 cars since the recall was initiated in Australia in 2009, and widened in 2013.
The ACCC said more models will probably be added to the recall.
Early models of the airbag have been found to explode in half of deployments, leading US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to warn motorists not to drive those vehicles.
“Folks should not drive these vehicles unless they are going straight to a dealer to have them repaired immediately, free of charge,” he said.
Takata last month filed for bankruptcy and has apologised to motorists on its website over the recall.
NRMA spokesman Peter Khoury said the motoring group welcomed the ACCC’s investigation and urged manufacturers to be more proactive in addressing concerns about product recalls.
“It’s crucial people have confidence in safety measures like airbags because they can save lives,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure confirmed some airbags had been replaced with similar airbags and would again need to be replaced.
“The rationale from manufacturers for taking this approach is that deterioration over time is a key risk factor in the mis-deployment of the defective airbag,” the spokesperson told The New Daily.
“On this basis, manufacturers have advised that it is safer to have a new replacement Takata airbag installed in a vehicle than to leave an old Takata airbag in a vehicle.”
See Product Safety Australia for the full list of affected cars.