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Bill Nelson’s Commerce Committee report says that automakers are still selling defective airbags in new cars

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Here’s a warning to those who have just purchased (or about a purchase) a new Toyota, Mitsubishi, Fiat Chrysler, or Volkswagon vehicle : You could very well have your new car recalled within the next two years because it contains a defective – and potentially very dangerous – airbag.

That’s the conclusion of a new report issued Wednesday by Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that the American consumer buys a new car, only to find out in two years that it’s going to be recalled,” said Florida Senator Bill Nelson at a news conference in his Tampa district office on Wednesday.  Nelson is the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, which has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into issues surrounding defective Takata airbag inflators – a crisis that has grown into the largest series of safety recalls in U.S. history. Nelson says at the very least, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should mandate that the car companies be required to inform new automobile owners of that likely possibility of a recall by 2018.

Those defective airbags have resulted in at least 11 deaths and more than 100 injuries world-wide.

The Takata air bags use ammonium nitrate as a propellant in inflaters, a chemical that can destabilize amid prolonged exposure to moisture and heat, leading to explosions that spray shrapnel in vehicle cabins. The Senate report says that to date, the majority of the replacement infiltrators that have been installed- approximately 4.6 million – are Takata ammonium-nitrate inflators. At least 2.1 million of those replacement air-bag inflaters contain ammonium nitrate without a drying agent- the very type of inflator that is now being recalled – had been installed in U.S. vehicles as of March.

The likely root cause of the rupture of Takata’s ammonium-pirate airbags “is a function of time, temperature cycling, and environment factors,” the report says.

The Senate report also says that just two of the four automakers listed in the report are providing investigators with the specific models that may contain defective inflators – they are 2016 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 2017 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 2016 Volkswagen CC, 2016 Audi TT and 2017 Audi R8.

That’s exactly what happened to Tampa resident Tiffany Vu, who had shrapnel explode into her arms, hands and chest after she was injured in a fender-bender on Highway 301 near I-4 in Tampa in April. She was hospitalized for approximately 12 hours after the airbag’s metal parts exploded into her.

An aspiring weight lifter who has participated in state and national championships over the last year and-a-half and dreams of participating in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, Vu says that she can only lift about fifty to sixty percent of the amount she was able to do before the incident.

Nelson called the latest news part of the “saga” that has been an ongoing national story for over a year now. Last year automakers recalled more than 23 million Takata airbag inflators in more than 19 million vehicles in one of the largest and most complex safety recalls in U.S. automotive history.  Then in January they increased with a recall of another 5 million vehicles. Last month, Takata announced they would recall another 35 million to 40 million air bag inflators, more than doubling the previous number of recalls.

The problem with the recalls, says Vu’s attorney  Rich Newsome, is that the public never hears about them, a problem he refers to as “recall fatigue.”

“The public has heard about this for two years, ” Newsome said. “Maybe the recall notice comes in, maybe it doesn’t. But it looks like junk mail. He credited Senator Nelson and the media for keeping the story alive with the public. “This is not over,” he proclaimed.

Because there is recall of defective airbags in more than 65 million vehicles, the NHTSA has done the recall in installments, according to Senator Nelson. But the reports that the responses from automakers has been unacceptably low, with the nationwide recall completions rates for individual carmakers ranging form .04 percent to 39.5 percent.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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