The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is urging drivers of more than 4.7 million cars to get their air bags fixed immediately. The warning affects various models manufactured by Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, BMW and GM, ranging between the years 2000-2007 for most, and to 2011 for the Honda Element.
You can look up your car by VIN number to see if it is affected.
The warning is mostly of recalls that have been previously issued, but the safety agency took the unusual step of issuing an alert to get drivers who may be complacent about recalls to pay attention.
"Responding to these recalls is essential for their personal safety and it will help aid our ongoing investigation," David Friedman, deputy administrator of the agency, said in a statement. "At this point, the issue appears to be a problem related to extended exposure to consistently high humidity and temperatures."
Humidity can apparently destabilize the explosives that are part of the airbag system and are used to quickly inflate the bags in an accident. That could cause apparently defective air bags manufactured by the Japanese supplier Takata, which were installed by 11 automakers worldwide, to explode and send shrapnel at drivers.
Investigators are looking into four deaths that could be linked to the defect. And officials are focusing their recall efforts first on humid regions of the country, including Florida and Hawaii.
"Safety is our top priority and we want to ensure that consumers respond to the 2013 and 2014 regional recalls," Friedman said.
Globally, the airbag recalls date from 2008 and involve 14 million vehicles — the sheer scale of which has overwhelmed recall efforts.
"It complicates things because so many manufacturers and models are affected when one supplier supplies that many cars," says Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
Takata is the second largest of only a handful of airbag suppliers.
Adding to that complication, Takata has not had to supply a huge stock of replacement parts, says Nerad, because air bags are designed to be installed in a vehicle and never be touched again.
"So it doesn't make sense that there be tons of replacement parts out there, because these air bag systems are typically not replaced," Nerad says.
Now that they have to be replaced at such a large scale, it's been difficult for car companies to keep up. Toyota is temporarily disabling passenger-side airbags in some cars and urging customers not to drive affected cars until the airbags are replaced.
The difficulties with the recalls stem from auto companies' reliance on a few suppliers for their parts. That's because there has been a consolidation of auto parts suppliers over the last 20 years, says Micheline Maynard, author of the books "Curbing Cars" and "The End of Detroit."
"Suppliers were fighting each other for business, and undercutting each other on prices, and literally were going out of business, because they couldn't build products cheap enough," Maynard says.
And while that's been good for surviving companies, it's also led to huge market exposure, as Takata is now finding out. The company says it expects a net loss of $220 million in the current fiscal year.
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