Takata air bag recall impacts auto regulators personally

Car accidents can have any number of causes and contributing factors; some obvious and others harder to determine. While it is often easy to spot something like driver negligence, it can be more difficult to conclude that a poorly designed or inadequately maintained road was to blame.

Of course, one hard-to-detect factor in traffic injuries and fatalities is becoming increasingly common: vehicle defects. Recall scandals are now a regular occurrence. In the last year alone, millions of Americans have been greatly impacted by the scandals involving General Motors (faulty ignition switches) and Takata (suppliers of dangerous air bags in vehicles made by 14 car companies). It seems that no family has been spared from a recall, including the head of the government agency that regulates the auto industry.

Mark R. Rosekind is the current administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It was recently reported that Mr. Rosekind’s wife drives one of the 24 million vehicles recalled in the U.S. due to dangerous Takata air bags. And although he likely has considerable connections within the auto industry, Mr. Rosekind noted that the car cannot yet be fixed due to lack of available replacement parts.

The air bags can inflate with too much force, causing the casing to explode like shrapnel from a bomb. So far, the dangerous air bags have been linked to more than 100 injuries worldwide and 10 deaths – nine of which have occurred in the United States.

The delayed fix affecting Mr. Rosekind’s family is not unique. In fact, of the 24 million recalled vehicles, only about 7.1 million have had their air bag inflators replaced. Takata had such a monopoly on these auto parts that replacement parts simply are not widely available.

All told, the NHTSA’s administrator is fortunate, because his family owns another car that his wife can drive while waiting for the repair. Many Americans are not so fortunate, in that they have no other reliable means of transportation. They have to drive their recalled vehicles knowing that they contain a potentially deadly defect.

In a sense, it is somewhat comforting that the head of the NHTSA has been personally affected by the same problem facing tens of millions of Americans. He can better empathize with the difficulty of the recall. At the same time, however, Mr. Rosekind’s troubles show just how widespread and serious this problem has become.