An air bag exploded in a Honda Accord in 2004 in Alabama, shooting out metal fragments and injuring the car's driver. At a loss to explain the incident, Honda and its Japanese air bag supplier deemed it "an anomaly" and did not issue a recall or seek the involvement of federal safety regulators.
Today, more than 14 million vehicles have been recalled by 11 auto makers over rupture risks involving air bags manufactured by the supplier, Takata. That is about five times the number of vehicles recalled this year by General Motors for its deadly ignition switch defect.
Two deaths and more than 30 injuries have been linked to ruptures in Honda vehicles, and complaints received by regulators about various auto makers blame Takata air bags for at least 139 injuries, including 37 people who reported air bags that ruptured or spewed shrapnel or chemicals. In one incident in December 2009, a Honda Accord driven by Gurjit Rathore, 33, hit a mail truck in Richmond, Va. Her air bag exploded, propelling shrapnel into her neck and chest, and she bled to death in front of her three children, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.
The details of Honda's air bag problems, which have not been previously reported, come as General Motors continues to face questions about its ignition switch defect, which some G.M. officials knew about for a decade before the recalls were issued. In echoes of that safety crisis, The New York Times found the inadequate response to the risk of rupturing air bags was rooted in the industry's ability to report safety problems in a minimal way, a weak regulatory agency and a disconnect between what automakers are aware of internally and what they reveal publicly.
The danger of exploding air bags was not disclosed for years after the first reported incident in 2004, despite red flags — including three additional ruptures reported to Honda in 2007, according to interviews, regulatory filings and court records.
In each of the incidents, Honda settled confidential financial claims with people injured by the air bags, but the auto maker did not issue a safety recall until late 2008, and then for only a small fraction — about 4,200 — of its vehicles eventually found to be equipped with the potentially explosive air bags.
The delays by both Honda and Takata in alerting the public about the defect — and later in Takata's acknowledging it extended beyond a small group of Honda vehicles — meant other auto makers like BMW, Toyota and Nissan were not aware of possible defects in their own vehicles for years, putting off their recalls. Only last month, Honda issued yet another recall of its own — its ninth for the defect — bringing to six million the total of recalled Honda and Acura vehicles.
It was just six months after the first 2008 recall that an air bag in Jennifer Griffin's Honda Civic, which was not among the recalled vehicles, exploded after a minor accident in Orlando, Fla. The air bag explosion sent a two-inch piece of shrapnel flying. When highway troopers found Ms. Griffin, then 26, with blood gushing from a gash in her neck, they were baffled by the extent of her injuries. At Honda, engineers soon linked the accident to the previous ruptures.
"Honda was aware of the problem," said Ms. Griffin, who settled a claim against the auto maker under terms she was not authorized to disclose. "This should never have happened at all."
Honda reported its death and injury tallies to regulators only in a confidential submission in December 2011, when it issued its fifth recall for the rupture defect, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The regulatory and court documents, as well interviews with current and former employees of Honda, Takata and N.H.T.S.A, show that both Honda and Takata offered ever-changing explanations about why the air bags continued to rupture. Federal regulators were also slow to react, and when they finally stepped in, their initial effort in 2009 was so cursory that they closed the inquiry before Takata provided all of the relevant documents.
Takata, one of the industry's largest manufacturers of air bags, declined to make officials available to The Times to be interviewed. Alby Berman, a spokesman, also declined to answer questions about the company's handling of the air bag defects. "Takata works closely each and every day with its customers to address any issues as they arise — even in the absence of recalls," he said.
In a statement, Honda said that it had taken "appropriate actions" after the first air bag rupture in 2004 "based on the information available at that time," including alerting Takata and filing a required injury notice with the federal safety agency.
"In the absence of any other similar incidents before or for years after, there was no evidence that indicated it was anything but an anomaly," the auto maker said.
By law, auto makers are required to inform federal regulators of a defect within five business days, even if an exact cause cannot be determined. Honda filed a standard report on the initial air bag injury in 2004, and followed up with similar filings on the incidents in 2007. The form requires auto makers to list the component — in this case, an air bag — that was responsible for an injury, but it does not allow for elaboration about the circumstances, like a rupture.
In none of those four instances of ruptured air bags, The Times found, did Honda go beyond the standard form and separately alert safety regulators to the most critical detail: that the air bags posed an explosion risk.
Nor did federal regulators inquire about the incidents when the forms were filed by Honda.
Safety officials said that Honda's reports, among thousands of such filings the agency receives every year, never caught investigators' attention. The agency is only now investigating whether Honda should have taken action after the first air bag rupture in 2004, including alerting regulators and recalling vehicles. That investigation began in June, the regulators said.
"Honda did not provide us any additional information indicating that this incident involved an air bag rupture, nor do we have additional records from our other data sources for this incident that would have justified such follow-up," the agency said in a statement.
Allan J. Kam, a former senior enforcement official for N.H.T.S.A., said that even one exploding air bag should have set off alarms at Honda.
"This isn't a defect where you can expect a number of events to happen before you take notice," said Mr. Kam, who left the safety agency in 2000 and is director of Highway Traffic Safety Associates, a consultant firm based in Bethesda, Md. "When you have something like that, you put all your resources into conducting a thorough investigation. You don't just delegate out the responsibility to your supplier."
A New Air Bag Design
The problematic air bags were developed by Takata in the late 1990s in an effort to make air bags more compact and to reduce the toxic fumes that early air bags often emitted when deployed. The redesigned air bags are inflated by means of an explosive based on a common compound used in fertilizer. That explosive is encased in a metal canister.
Honda, which has a long relationship with Takata, became among the first auto makers to use the new air bags. They were placed in some models beginning in 1998, according to media announcements at the time.
By May 2004, the first reported air bag explosion occurred in the Honda Accord, a 2002 model, in Alabama, according to Honda officials and regulatory filings. Honda declined to provide additional details about the incident, beyond confirming that it had settled a claim with the injured driver.
Honda alerted Takata about the rupture, but Takata reported back to Honda that it was unable to find a cause. Honda determined that the supplier "provided a reasonable explanation of this event as an anomaly," said Chris Martin, a spokesman for Honda in Torrance, Calif.
Honda also filed a so-called early warning report with N.H.T.S.A., one of 245 reports filed by Honda that year on various incidents that resulted in injuries or death.
In February and June 2007, Honda told Takata about the additional air bag ruptures that year. But again, the automaker did not initiate a recall or provide information about the ruptures to federal regulators. According to regulatory filings, Honda wanted to await the outcome of a "failure mode analysis" being conducted by Takata.
Three months later, Takata engineers laid out a theory about what might have gone wrong: Between late 2001 and late 2002, workers at a Takata factory in Monclova, Mexico, had left out moisture-sensitive explosives on the plant floor, making them prone to "overly energetic combustion," according to regulatory filings and interviews with Honda officials who declined to be identified because the matter was under investigation. But Takata assured Honda that by November 2002, it had overhauled production processes to "assure proper handling" of all its explosives, according to a regulatory filing.
Based on those findings, Honda and Takata elected to continue monitoring the problem, according to Honda. Without notifying owners, the auto maker started to collect Takata-made air bag inflaters returned to dealers as part of unrelated warranty claims, which were then sent to Takata engineers. Old inflaters from Honda cars at scrap yards were also retrieved and studied.
After a yearlong study, Takata engineers told Honda that they were convinced moisture was at the root of the defect. But only a small number of inflaters were affected, Takata told the Honda officials. In November 2008, Honda issued a limited recall of 4,205 Civics and Accords, reporting to regulators that it had identified all "possible vehicles that could potentially experience the problem."
It was the first time Honda had publicly acknowledged the rupturing problem, but even then, the auto maker did not disclose to regulators that it was aware of four incidents in which people were injured by ruptured air bags.
And the air bags continued to rupture. Less than six months later, in April 2009, the air bag in Ms. Griffin's Honda Civic in Florida ruptured. The following month, Ashley Parham, 18, was killed in Midwest City, Okla., when the air bag in her 2001 Honda Accord exploded out of her steering wheel after a minor crash. Again, Honda filed only the required early warning reports on these incidents, which do not allow for specifics about the ruptures.
Takata engineers next linked the defect to its factory in Moses Lake, Wash. Between 2000 and 2002, a flaw in a machine that presses air bag explosives into wafers had made the explosives unstable, Takata engineers explained to Honda, according to the interviews with Honda officials.
In the defective air bags, explosives in the metal inflater, which would normally burn down and produce the nitrogen gas to inflate the air bag, instead burn aggressively and cause the inflater to burst, shooting hot fragments through the air bag's fabric, Takata engineers explained to Honda.
The engineers acknowledged that the defect covered a wider range of vehicles than initially estimated, but explained that the plant had made numerous upgrades to its machinery in late 2002, which it thought had improved the quality of its explosives. In July 2009, Honda recalled 510,000 more Honda and Acura vehicles. In its recall documents, Honda did not mention injuries or deaths, referring only to cases of "unusual driver air bag deployment."
Around that time, Honda's air bag problems caught the attention of federal regulators, who wondered why the auto maker needed to issue a second recall on the same defect, and opened an investigation in November 2009. But the agency closed its inquiry after only six months, saying there was "insufficient information" to suggest that the companies had failed to take timely action. The decision to end the investigation was so swift that when Takata said it had discovered more documents on the defects, the agency said it did not need to inspect them, according to regulatory records.
Even More Ruptures
Air bags kept exploding. In addition to the crash in December 2009, in which Gurjit Rathore bled to death, a 2001 Honda Civic driven by 24-year-old Kristy Williams exploded in April 2010 as she was stopped at a traffic light in Morrow, Ga. Metal shards punctured her neck, causing profuse bleeding, strokes and seizures, according to her law firm.
In the following months, Takata engineers came up with yet another explanation for the ruptures: Beginning in September 2001, machine operators at the Moses Lake plant could have inadvertently switched off an "auto reject" function that weeded out poorly made explosives that can become unstable, they said, according to regulatory filings and Honda officials.
To make matters worse, plant workers had kept crucial records in unreliable, handwritten notes, making it difficult to identify which batches might contain defective parts, Takata reported to Honda, according to Honda officials. But Takata assured Honda that, as part of the upgrades at that plant, in September 2002, the supplier had added a locking mechanism that prevented workers from turning the auto-reject function off, according to filings later made by Takata.
In February 2010, Honda ordered the recall of an additional 438,000 Accord, Civic, CR-V, Odyssey, Pilot and Acura models, again not acknowledging past injuries or deaths. It also issued recalls in April and December 2011, April 2013 and, most recently, August of this year — bringing the total to six million.
The foot-dragging with Takata has had repercussions for other auto makers, who have recalled about eight million vehicles worldwide because of the rupture risks.
In a March 2010 letter, BMW pressed Takata "as to why they believe BMW vehicles were not affected" by the air bag explosion risks posed to Honda vehicles, according to documents the German auto maker provided to the safety agency.
Takata responded with assurances that BMW's air bags were manufactured on a different production schedule from Honda's, and were unaffected, the documents show. But last year, Takata did an about-face, acknowledging to BMW that its air bags were indeed a rupture risk. BMW has since recalled more than 1.8 million vehicles, and Takata's acknowledgment of the broader problem has led the other nine auto makers also to issue recalls — Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, Mazda, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Isuzu.
It is unclear why Takata had made several manufacturing changes in late 2002. Takata has said in regulatory filings that the manufacturing changes were made as part of routine upgrades. According to Honda officials, another unnamed auto maker had raised concerns with the way in which Takata stored its explosives at its Mexico factory.
It is also unclear whether an air bag rupture in a Toyota Corolla several months before those changes is related to the defect.
Toyota has said that the 2002 incident was not related, and N.H.T.S.A. says it has not opened an investigation into that incident.
Toyota issued its recall for air bag explosion risks in 2013 after two air bag ruptures in Corollas in Japan that year.
There seems to be no end in sight to the air bag ruptures.
In June, a low-speed accident involving a 2005 Honda Accord in Los Angeles caused the car's driver air bag "to 'detonate,' sending hot metal and plastic shrapnel into the cabin," according to a complaint filed with the safety agency. That car had not been recalled, but Honda has since expanded its recall to include vehicles registered in California.
Officials at Honda and Takata, and regulators in the United States and Japan, say they cannot explain why the ruptures continue.