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Airbag recall: Takata linked to Australian death

The ACCC is launching an investigation into the handling of the local Takata airbag recall.

The death of an Australian motorist after a Takata airbag allegedly misdeployed, as well as injuries sustained by a woman in April for the same reason, has led the Australian consumer watchdog to launch an investigation into the handling of the recall.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) today said it was urgently seeking information from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) and carmakers regarding Takata airbags at the centre of the largest vehicle recall in history.

Since 2009, more than 120 million vehicles around the world have been identified as recipients of faulty airbags. In Australia, it has affected 2.3 million vehicles.

In a blunt warning to Australian car owners, ACCC chairman Rod Sims said: "Do not ignore or delay responding to a letter from your car’s manufacturer or retailer asking you to have your car's airbag replaced.

"The airbags degrade over time and can become lethal by misdeploying and firing metal shards at the car’s occupants," he said.

But consumer advocacy group Choice wants the message to go wider and louder. Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey said he does not believe the automotive industry is doing enough to raise public awareness.

"Unfortunately, I think in Australia this recall has largely flown under the radar," he said in a statement following the Australian incidents.

"TV advertising is critical. A mass market medium gets the message home to consumers that there is a problem."

"We know that when car companies are trying to flog you a car that they will bombard you with TV and radio ads, and yet when it comes time to get a safety message home to you that you need to act, these ads are sadly lacking."

Mr Godfrey said changes had to be made to the Australian Consumer Law and stronger penalties applied to ensure manufacturers do not replace dangerous products with defective new ones.

He was referring to fears that early recall programs replaced airbags with faulty units.

Choice said that after its own three month investigation, it found more than two thirds of the 2.1 million cars recalled in Australia still have not had their faulty airbags replaced. Car owners were being told by manufacturers that there is a minimum six-month wait to remove the potentially lethal safety devices, the report said.

Refitting vehicles with the same dangerous airbags still leaves people driving ticking time-bombs.

Alarmingly, Choice also alleges that some car manufacturers – including BMW, Toyota, Mazda, Lexus and Subaru – have been replacing the airbags with identical devices as a temporary fix.

"Refitting vehicles with the same dangerous airbags still leaves people driving ticking time-bombs," Mr Godfrey said.

The ACCC said it was concerned about the availability of replacement stock worldwide, retrofitting issues and the availability of authorised technicians able to fit airbags.

However, it said that “progress on the recall was initially slow but is improving over time as stock becomes available” and that “car manufacturers say there is now sufficient stock available for affected cars to be fixed”.

It has also raised concern about the possibility that faulty airbags have been fitted during the recall process.

"Some cars have already had their airbag replaced with one treated with a water-absorbing chemical designed to address the problem, but these may also degrade over time," it said.

"This means some cars subject to the recall may need have to have their airbags replaced again in around six years' time."

Mr Sims said carmakers must inform motorists about the type of replacement airbag and if it is likely to be the subject of another recall in the future.

Faulty Takata airbags are linked to 18 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the world.

He has now involved the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development –responsible for motor vehicle safety standards and which is now monitoring the Takata recall – to ensure the consumer is fully aware of the replacement airbag process.

"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," Mr Sims said.

"Our advice to consumers is not to panic, but to visit the Product Safety Australia website to see if their car is affected by the recall and if it is, to contact their car's manufacturer immediately.

"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."

Faulty Takata airbags are linked to 18 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the world.

In Australia, 850,000 cars have had the airbags replaced, with the death of the local motorist occurring in a 2009 Honda CR-V crossover.

Honda Australia told CarsGuide the program was running at 5000 vehicles a week and was about 70 per cent through the number of affected vehicles.

Choice said the airbags have inflators that contain ammonium nitrate propellants which can become volatile with age when exposed to changing temperatures, humidity and moisture.

"This may cause them to explode and propel shrapnel into drivers and passengers," it said.

"The shards have been known to puncture people's eyes, face, neck and chest.

In one case in the US the injuries suffered by the victim were so severe that police thought he had been shot in the face."

The airbags are in 60 makes of cars sold in Australia, including Honda, Toyota, BMW, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Lexus, Jeep, Nissan, Chrysler, and Dodge.

The ACCC is urging all drivers to check if their car's airbag is has been recalled by visiting productsafety.gov.au.

Should more be done to warn consumers of the dangers of driving around with a faulty Takata airbag? Tell what you think in the comments below.