Would you visit a shooting range or venture out into the field with a gun that has up to a 50/50 chance of causing serious injuries or killing you each time the trigger is pulled?
Federal officials warn that thousands of drivers and their passengers are taking similar risks driving certain 2001 to 2015 model year vehicles that have defective Takata frontal airbag inflators.
Airbags are designed to save lives, but heat, humidity and chemical degradation over time can cause the faulty Takata airbag inflators to explode with the devastation of a pipe bomb.
Tragically, Huma Hanif’s family learned about the danger too late. In March 2016, the 17-year-old was driving her 2002 Honda Civic on FM 762 in Richmond when she was involved in what authorities described as a minor fender-bender — one that everyone should have walked away from.
But Huma didn’t. Her Civic had one of the Takata airbags with the defective inflator and it blew, hurling shrapnel into the high-school senior’s neck, inflicting mortal injuries.
The 14-year-old Honda had been purchased used and Huma’s family said they didn’t know about the nationwide airbag recall that targets an estimated 34 million vehicles equipped with the flawed Takata airbags.
Getting the message across that the defective airbags can hurt or kill is a massive problem — in Texas alone, more than 2.1 million defective Takata inflators have yet to be replaced, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
To sound the alarm, a special push called Operation Find & Fix was launched in October. Federal officials said the campaign is aimed at vehicle owners in Sugar Land, Missouri City and Sienna Plantation because those communities have a high concentration of older vehicles and the region’s heat and humidity put those drivers and passengers at high risk. The project’s mission is to boost awareness through outreach efforts and recall-check events at schools and places of worship, as well as involving auto collision repair shops and community organizations.
“What we’re finding to make sure this succeeds is that it takes members of our own community,” Heidi King, NHTSA’s director, told the Chronicle. “People see me on the evening news and read the newspapers, but they really act and get their car fixed when they hear it from a parent, sister and brother, or hear it at work.”
Becky Nelson, a spokeswoman for Airbag Recall, noted that a vehicle manufacturer may not know if a vehicle is still being driven or that it may be with its second, third or fourth owner. Even if the owner receives a notice, the recall’s dire urgency is not getting through. Nelson noted that there have been cases of automakers sending 20 recall notices and even dispatching someone to the owner’s home and the consumer was still reluctant to act.
Hearing the news from a family member, neighbor or someone in the community is crucial, Nelson reiterated. The person-to-person strategy can be effective. During a 100-day period in areas of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley where the same tactics were employed, Airbag Recall saw a 30 percent jump in dealership airbag repairs, checked more than 33,000 vehicles and discovered about 3,500 vehicles that still had the potentially deadly airbag inflators.
Officials stress that while some replacement inflators are harder to come by, most are in good supply, the repairs will be done free by appointment, and may even include a loaner car.
Honda said dealerships have adequate replacement parts and a free rental car will be available to the vehicle owner for the day of the recall repair, or longer, if a replacement part is temporarily unavailable.
“We have over 500 people around the country going door-to-door seeking owners of unrepaired vehicles,” said Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman. “That’s been happening since early 2017, and continues nationwide, including in Houston.
Honda has adequate replacement parts to repair all Honda and Acura models included in the inflator recalls and that, combined with an unprecedented outreach effort of more than 197 million outreach attempts, has helped Honda lead the industry in recall completions. “We have now repaired over 80 percent of the inflators in vehicles left on the road,” Martin said.
Mazda has several models included in the recall and created what it calls a Takata Action Team to work closely with Operation Find & Fix and convey how grave the problem is.
Texas is Mazda’s biggest challenge, with about 95,000 Mazdas falling under the recall and about 93,000 Takata airbags in the Lone Star state that that need to be repaired, said Lawrence Chao, general manager of Mazda’s gulf region.
In the Houston area, that totals an estimated 17,000 affected Mazda vehicles and over 23,000 defective airbags. Of these, nearly 7,000 have been repaired but there are still over 16,000 needing the repair to be completed under the Takata recall.
“Mazda has sent letters, made phone calls, and created targeted online and digital ads to reach our customers about the importance of getting their vehicles into our dealerships for their free repair,” Chao said. “And while Mazda is aggressively reaching out to our customers about the importance of having their Takata-recalled airbag inflators replaced, we are also interested in creating awareness of this recall so that all affected owners’ vehicles, regardless of brand, are repaired.”
Huma’s death has had a profound effect on her brother Faizan Hanif and the rest of Huma’s family. The accountant said Huma, who had looked forward to going into nursing, wasn’t just his sister, but a close friend.
“You have to move on and go with the flow, but this will remain with me my whole life,” Hanif said. Since losing his sister in a tragic accident that was preventable, he has urged coworkers and friends to find out if their vehicles are included in the Takata airbag recall.
Some discovered their car was included in the airbags but some kept driving the car because the necessary parts were on back order and they needed transportation.
“I try to push them and tell them,‘Don’t drive that car,’ ” Hanif said. “ ‘Better to get a loaner. By driving that car you’re putting yourself in front of a gun.’ ”