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Government ups airbag warning to 7.8m vehicles

Published:Thursday | October 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
This undated photo provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows a crash test of a 2003 Toyota Corolla, one of the models subject to a recall to repair faulty airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is warning 7.8 million car owners that inflator mechanisms in the airbags can rupture, causing metal fragments to fly out when the bags are deployed. AP

DETROIT (AP): The United States government is now urging owners of nearly eight million cars and trucks to have the airbags repaired because of potential danger to drivers and passengers. But the effort is being complicated by confusing information and a malfunctioning website.

The government's auto safety agency says that inflator mechanisms in the airbags can rupture, causing metal fragments to fly out when the bags are deployed. The inflators are made by Japanese parts supplier, Takata Corp.

Safety advocates say at least four people have died from the problem, which they claim could affect more than 20 million cars nationwide. Yesterday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) added 3.1 million more vehicles to an initial warning covering 4.7 million cars and SUVs.

Car owners might have difficulty determining if their vehicle is equipped with the potentially dangerous airbags. The warning covers certain models made by BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota.

Northern states excluded

Most of the 7.8 million vehicles are subject to existing recalls. But manufacturers have limited the recalls to high-humidity areas, excluding cars and trucks in states to the north. NHTSA says owners in Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Hawaii and "limited areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana" should pay special attention to the warning.

Worse yet, the regulatory agency has twice corrected the number of vehicles affected and acknowledged that a list it released Monday wasn't completely accurate. The agency urged people to use its website to see if their cars are affected - but a feature allowing people to check for recalls by vehicle identification number malfunctioned Monday night and still wasn't operational Wednesday.

Automakers have been recalling cars to fix the problem for several years, but neither Takata nor NHTSA have identified a firm cause. The agency opened a formal investigation into the problem in June, and a theory put forth in agency documents suggests the chemical used to inflate the airbag can be altered by high humidity, making it explode with too much force while deploying.