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Canadian crash revives ARC air bag fears

Published:Sunday | August 7, 2016 | 12:00 AM
A 2002 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, a make and model involved in a previous ARC Automotive air bag suspected death.


Auto safety regulators in two countries are investigating another deadly air bag problem that could affect up to eight million vehicles.

Investigators in the US and Canada are looking into a crash in the Canadian province of Newfoundland in which a woman was killed by an exploding air bag inflator made by ARC Automotive Inc of Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.

As many as eight million ARC inflators are under scrutiny in the US, mainly in older cars, although it has not been determined how many of those are defective. Although the results are similar, the ARC problem is different from one that resulted in the recall of 69 million inflators in the US made by Takata Corp.

Authorities say the Canadian woman was killed on July 8 when the ARC inflator ruptured and sent metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment of 2009 Hyundai Elantra she was driving. Without the shrapnel injuries, it is likely that the driver would have survived the low-speed crash, Canadian officials said. Now, investigators from both countries are trying to figure out what caused the inflator to blow apart.

The death raises more questions about the safety of air bags, which rely on explosions to fill bags that protect people in crashes. It also brought new urgency to a probe opened last year by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after an Ohio woman was injured by an ARC inflator. On Thursday, the US safety agency upgraded its investigation to an engineering analysis, a step closer to a recall.

NHTSA's Canadian counterpart, Transport Canada, said ARC is co-operating. NHTSA said it is focusing on determining the entire population of ARC inflators in the US, which it estimates at eight million, mainly in older vehicles made by General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai, and Kia.

"Should a safety defect be found, owners will be notified," Transport Canada said in a statement.

US investigators began looking at ARC inflators in July of last year after getting reports that the Ohio woman was seriously hurt when her 2002 Chrysler Town & Country minivan crashed and the inflator ruptured. The agency said it also found another injury involving someone in a 2004 Kia Optima mid-size car. In both cases, the inflators were made at ARC's factory in Knoxville, according to agency documents.

In the probe, NHTSA focused on inflators made from 2000 until September of 2004. The population includes about 2.6 million that were sold to General Motors.

According to NHTSA, the Elantra in the Newfoundland crash had an ARC inflator that was made in China, but it is unknown whether any of the same inflators were used in other US vehicles. ARC has confirmed that the Canadian Elantra inflator "was substantially the same design" as the one used in at least one other US model, the 2004 Optima, the agency said.