NHTSA wants recall of air bags it says hurls shrapnel at passengers

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it is holding a meeting in October to potentially force a recall of over 50 million hybrid, toroidal air bag inflators that it says can explode and propel shrapnel at passengers. 

Over 40 million of the air bag inflators were manufactured by ARC Automotive, with some of the older models being made by Delphi. 

The NHTSA said these air bag inflators were manufactured through January 2018. It says when commanded to reply, metal debris can be “forcefully ejected” into the passenger compartment. The NHTSA said that the rupturing air bag inflators pose an “unreasonable risk of serious injury or death to vehicle occupants.” 

The NHTSA noted seven incidents that caused injury, including one that was fatal. The air bag inflators were used by a number of auto manufacturers, including Ford, Kia, Hyundai, Tesla, General Motors and Volkswagen. 

The most recent incident occurred in March when the driver-side air bag inflator ruptured in a 2017 Chevrolet Traverse in Michigan. The NHTSA said the driver sustained injuries to the face.

The NHTSA noted a fatal incident in August 2021 when the driver of a 2015 Chevrolet Traverse died.

“Although air bags, when properly deployed, provide significant safety benefits — NHTSA estimates that frontal air bags have saved more than 50,000 lives over the past 30 years — the rupture of an air bag inflator during deployment is rare and extremely dangerous. Although the incidence of rupture is rare, NHTSA and the industry have acted to address confirmed ruptures through recalls,” the NHTSA said. 

The NHTSA says that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act requires manufacturers to issue recalls for safety defects in vehicles. 

In April, the NHTSA sent a letter to ARC requesting the company conduct a recall. The NHTSA said that ARC responded by characterizing the incidents as “isolated events” and that the risk from rupturing inflators was part of normal business.

“An inflator that explosively ruptures, propelling metal fragments at a high velocity into an occupied passenger compartment of a motor vehicle — and into the occupants themselves — cannot simply be dismissed as a normal manufacturing anomaly, with vehicle owners left uninformed yet bearing the risk of the peril they and their occupants face,” the NHTSA said. 

The NHTSA said ARC took steps in January 2018 to address the ruptures and that its air bag inflators made since then have shown no signs of defect. 

Scripps News has contacted ARC for its reaction to the announcement.