Why are recalled Takata airbags being recycled?

Because even though it's illegal, the law is hard to enforce

ORANGE CITY, Fla. – By now you’ve probably heard the story: millions of airbags manufactured by Japanese auto parts supplier Takata have been recalled by auto manufacturers. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figured out that long-term exposure to high humidity and high temperatures breaks down the propellant used to trigger tens of millions of Takata airbags. The result: faulty airbags can go off unexpectedly and with enough force to break apart components sending shards of metal into the head, neck, and body of a driver or front seat passenger.

And that’s exactly what happened to 18-year old Karina Dorado.

In March, Dorado got into an accident in Las Vegas while driving her 2002 Honda Accord. The accident wasn’t severe, but the teen was almost killed. Metal from the Accord’s Takata airbag punctured her windpipe causing her to almost bleed to death. What makes this accident so troubling is that Dorado’s airbag had already been replaced once… with a recalled airbag from a 2001 Honda Accord.

“The vehicle she was driving had a recalled Takata airbag,” Billie Marie Morrison, an attorney representing the Dorado family said. Morrison said the airbag was “not the one that came with her car.”

[Read: Takata Air Bag recall by-the-numbers]

Dorado’s story is an odd one, but highlights a loophole with Takata’s airbag recall. Recycled airbags not turned in to be replaced by manufacturers can instead end up in used cars, even though it’s illegal to do just that.

In Dorado’s case, the story starts with an accident in Phoenix in 2014. A 2002 Honda Accord (that she would eventually end up owning) was considered “totaled” by the insurance company, but had what is known as a salvage title. A salvage title allows someone to buy the “shell” of a car, fix it up, and then resell the car. Cars with salvage titles are considered total losses for the insurance company, but insurance adjustors believe there is money to be made at an auction, and, with the right repairs, the car can be made road worthy again.

Part of the repair to Dorado’s Accord was to replace the steering wheel airbag that had deployed in the Phoenix accident. But instead of getting a new airbag, the seller used an airbag from a 2001 Honda Accord. That car was recalled by Honda to replace the airbag, but the car was never brought in. Dorada’s father bought her the 2002 Accord with a recalled 2001 Accord airbag car in 2015. Two years later, the teen was in the accident that almost killed her.

Illegal or not?


According to the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act of 2000, it is illegal to sell a used automotive part (that has been the subject of a recall) that has not been fixed. So if you have a battery casing that has been recalled and fixed by the manufacturer, you can resell that part. But if you have never taken that same battery casing in for the recall, it’s illegal to sell it to someone else. Period.

In fact, as part of the FAST Act signed by President Obama in late 2015, the maximum fine levied by the NHTSA for a single violation of selling recalled equipment was upped to $21,000 with the amount for civil penalties for a related series of violations topping out at $105 million.

“We just don’t sell ‘em,” Tim McMillon said. McMillon has seen his fair share of Takata airbags. He owns M&K Used Auto Parts and has about 2,500 cars spread across twenty acres in Orange City.

“We take these airbags, and give them to the right people, to get them off the streets so nobody uses them,” he said. In McMillon’s case, he was contacted a few months ago by Honda. The company asked him to go through his records to see if he had any cars with recalled airbags sitting in the yard. McMillon’s team pulled the airbags, sent them to a contractor who was hired by Honda, who then got the airbags back to the Honda. The buyback program nets McMillon about $50 apiece.

How many airbags has Honda America gotten back from salvage yards?

More than 70,000.

That number comes from Chris Martin, a company spokesperson. Martin said the Honda is working with RAS (Rebuilders Automotive Supply) to recover airbag modulators from salvage yards that contain recalled Takata inflators. Once in-house, Honda stores the bags for eventually disposal.

Martin told News 6 that Honda leads the industry in fixing Takata recalls (they’ve completed some 10-million inflators). But that’s only a bit more than 60 percent of the recalled inflators still out there and they have a ways to go.

“Owners of recalled Honda and Acura vehicles should seek repair at an authorized dealer as soon as possible,” Martin said. “There is no reason to wait. The recall repairs are free, we have plenty of replacement parts for all affected Honda and Acura models, and, if they need it, we'll even provide a free loaner car to the vehicle's owner for the day of the recall repair.”

GETTING RESULTS: What to do if you suspect your car has a recalled airbag?

Despite the best efforts of Honda, RAS, and salvage yard owners like McMillon, there are still cars out there that have original equipment faulty airbags, or cars that have been taken in for the recall, fixed, but then had used faulty bags put in the vehicle.

“More than 750,000 airbags are replaced every year,” Chris Basso with Carfax said. Basso said, “It’s not uncommon for shops to use recycled airbags that were taken from vehicles on salvage yards or sold online and put into vehicles where the airbag’s deployed in an accident.”

Carfax is just one of many companies that tracks vehicle histories. Aside from used cars, the company also tracks thousands of salvage title cars that are put back on the road each year. And although many of them are safe, Basso believes it’s a good idea for the buyer to be aware of the previous condition of the car.

“Information is the first step to protection here.”

According to the NHTSA, there are about 70-million driver side and passenger side airbags that have been recalled. And those airbags aren’t just limited to Hondas: 19 different manufacturers have issued recalls spanning across 139 different models.

There are two steps you should take to see if you may (or may not) have a car included in the Takata recall. First, to see a full list of cars affected by the Takata airbag recall, click here. If your car is on this list, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Get your VIN number and see if your specific car has an open recall. You can plug in your VIN number at this link.

If you have an open recall on your car, contact the dealership to see when you can bring the car in for a replacement airbag. However, if you’re still not sure about the car and you want to be absolutely positive you have a safe airbag, there are some extra steps you can take.

Select a vehicle history search tool to run a background check on your car. Three of the biggest companies specializing in vehicle histories are AutoCheck, VinAudit, and the aforementioned Carfax. Prices, options, and features vary for all three; you can read up and decide which one is best for you in this article.

Once you get a detailed report on your car, there’s still one more thing you can do to check your airbag: pull the airbag out of the car and look at the serial number. As the saying goes, DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME! Airbags are tricky pieces of equipment; leave it to a professional to get the airbag out, examine it, and follow up with the manufacturer. Basso said. most shops charge about $60 for this. That’s not a bad price for peace-of-mind and ensuring the safety of you and your passengers.

About the Authors:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise