If you’ve used the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website to check whether your car needs work related to the Takata airbag recalls, you may want to check again.
In the wake of a Cars.com investigation, NHTSA has updated its online tool, which we found misidentified cars involved in recent Takata airbag recalls as either already having had the required work done or as not part of the recall at all. Faulty front airbag inflators from Takata Corp. have been linked to at least six deaths, prompting more than 17 million recalls in the U.S. since 2008.
NHTSA took the step only days after Cars.com provided it with dozens of vehicle identification numbers for listings that were covered under the federal safety recall of faulty airbags but didn’t show up on NHTSA’s site. Cars.com plugged those VINs into NHTSA’s tool that shows consumers a car’s “open” recalls, meaning recalls where repair work has not yet been done.
NHTSA launched its search tool in August, and after a consumer inputs a VIN, the site is supposed to display any unaddressed recalls. Between April 6 and 13, Cars.com obtained hundreds of VINs from nine popular models affected by the Takata recall and investigated the status of those cars on the NHTSA site. We looked at listings near eight metro areas: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Seattle. Three of those cities are in or nearby regions of high absolute humidity, a key factor in many of the recalls.
Our results found cars that did not yet have their Takata airbag work done, from automakers including BMW, Honda and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. That’s to be expected: Officials at several automakers indicated that they’re through roughly 10 to 20 percent of Takata repairs, as of their latest counts.
But not every model we investigated returned consistent results.
What’s a Recall, and What Isn’t?
Initially, the most concerning aspect was the Ford models we investigated. The automaker’s December 2014 expansion of Takata driver’s-side airbag recalls included the 2005 through 2008 Mustang built between Aug. 18, 2004, and June 25, 2007, among other models. We audited dozens of VINs from various 2006 Mustangs in all eight regions, and not a single car listed had an open Takata recall.
That’s because the Ford recall is technically something else, Ford said. NHTSA calls Ford’s campaign a “recall,” but Ford safety spokeswoman Kelli Felker says it’s technically one of Ford’s “customer satisfaction programs.”
Owners receiving letters at home “would be responding to it as if it was technically a recall,” she said. “For us, we are treating it as a recall. But in the system, it’s not. So that’s probably why it does not show up on the NHTSA website.”
All of that changed this week. On Wednesday, a check of our VIN list revealed that the vast majority of those Ford VINs show open Takata recalls in NHTSA’s database.
“There were some discrepancies in the way Ford loaded VINs into the system, and we’ve worked with them to get the right data,” said a NHTSA source who asked for anonymity. “It’s always helpful when we’re made aware of such discrepancies.”
“Last week, NHTSA requested that all Takata-related programs be accessible on the agency’s website,” a Ford spokesperson said Wednesday. “That information is now available. Ford continues to cooperate with NHTSA.”
Regional Differences Remain
That isn’t the only issue. Defective Takata inflators have been found in frontal airbags on both the driver and passenger side, but which airbag largely affects whether cars are recalled nationwide or only in areas of high absolute humidity, which some cite as a risk factor.
NHTSA has pushed for a national recall of cars with defective Takata driver’s-side airbags, and five automakers (BMW, FCA, Ford, Honda and Mazda) have complied.
But Takata passenger-side airbags have been problematic only in areas of “high absolute humidity, which testing and field reports indicate is strongly related to ruptures,” NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said. “Based on testing and field data, NHTSA does not currently see a need to expand the recalls.”
The passenger airbag recalls target where cars are sold and registered, but that doesn’t mean that cars in low-humidity climates aren’t potentially at risk. What if a parent in Milwaukee sends her son — and car — to a Florida college but keeps the vehicle registered in Wisconsin? For years, the car could sit in Florida’s high humidity without its owners receiving a recall notice.
If you live in an area where passenger airbags haven’t been recalled, determining which models and which years are under some kind of recall can be tricky.
Take the Nissan Sentra, for example. Cars.com looked at dozens of Sentra VINs on NHTSA’s finder for sedans from 2003 and 2005, both of which have passenger airbag recalls. Most of the model-year 2003 cars had open recalls, regardless of location. But for 2005 models, no VIN that we found located outside regions of high humidity had an open Takata recall, according to the NHTSA site.
That’s because Nissan has an older, national Takata recall for the 2003 Sentra but only a regional campaign in areas of high humidity for 2005 Sentras. The remedy for the two campaigns is identical; both call for the replacement of the passenger-side airbag inflator.
“As with any regional recall, the scope is limited,” our NHTSA source said. “There is no obligation on the vehicle manufacturer to show an open recall when it does not exist on a vehicle that does not fall within the scope of the recall.”
Nissan says there is virtually no risk around passenger airbags in places that don’t have high humidity.
“Look at a picture of America,” Nissan technology spokesman Steve Yaeger said. Takata incidents involving the driver’s airbag are “scattered all over the place. When you look at the passenger side, it’s like an outline of the Gulf Coast.”
What Consumers Need to Know
Because there’s a limited supply of replacement inflators, the vast majority of cars under the Takata recall are still not repaired, but it would be helpful if NHTSA’s site showed completed recalls so you could see what was fixed, not just what needs fixing.
The agency said that automakers bear the final responsibility for reporting all recall-related information.
“Manufacturers are responsible for notifying vehicle owners of a recall and tracking whether a vehicle has been remedied,” Trowbridge said. “They are responsible for supplying the data for the VIN lookup and updating that data weekly.”
What’s a shopper to do? Do your homework. Most VINs we queried had open recalls, so NHTSA’s VIN finder appears to be a good first step if you’re shopping for a car. The website iSeeCars.com analyzed used-car prices between late 2013 and early 2015 and found that cars affected by the Takata recall fell in price more than twice as fast as those that weren’t involved. If you’re shopping one of these cars you should:
- Check NHTSA’s website and the automaker’s VIN finder to determine all unfixed issues, whether a recall or a service bulletin.
- Ask the seller if the car has ever spent extended time along the Gulf Coast.
- Ask the seller point-blank if a car’s Takata recall has been fixed, and ask for proof. Phong Ly, CEO of iSeeCars, advises shoppers have sellers issue a written statement if they claim the recall has been fixed.
If you don’t live in Florida, the Gulf Coast, Hawaii or any island territories, remember that Takata recalls for passenger airbags present a much lower risk. That’s true even if you take a road trip to a humid region, Nissan’s Yaeger notes.
“From the field data we have gathered, it takes a sustained exposure to high humidity for an increased risk of defect to be present” in passenger-side airbags, he said. “How many years that equates to is hard to tell, but occasional trips to those areas should not have an impact.”