DETROIT—The United States government is now urging owners of nearly eight million cars and trucks to have the air bags repaired because of potential danger to drivers and passengers.
But the effort is being complicated by confusing information and a malfunctioning website.
The government’s auto safety agency said that inflator mechanisms in the air bags can rupture, causing metal fragments to fly out when the bags are deployed.
The inflators are made by Japanese parts supplier Takata Corp.
Safety advocates said at least four people have died from the problem, which they claim could affect more than 20 million cars across the U.S.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) this week added 3.1 million vehicles to an initial warning already covering 4.7 million cars and SUVs.
The agency launched its investigation into the issues in in June.
Car owners might have difficulty determining if their vehicle is equipped with the potentially dangerous air bags.
The warning covers certain models made by BMW AG, Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. (GM), Mazda Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Subaru and Toyota Motor Corp.
Most of the 7.8 million vehicles are subject to existing recalls.
But manufacturers have limited the recalls to high-humidity areas, excluding cars and trucks in states to the north.
The NHTSA said owners in Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii and “limited areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana” should pay special attention to the warning.
Worse yet, the regulatory agency has twice corrected the number of vehicles affected and acknowledged that a list it released earlier this week wasn’t completely accurate.
The agency urged people to use its website to see if their cars are affected—but a feature allowing people to check for recalls by vehicle identification number malfunctioned Oct. 20 and still wasn’t operational two days later.
Transport Canada has said it is aware of the consumer advisory from the NHTSA, but notes that a NHSTA study of the airbags has pointed to sustained high-humidity and high temperature as being “a significant factor in the failure of the airbag inflators in question.”
It advises Canadian motorists to consult the Transport Canada recalls data base to see if they should have their vehicle checked.
Automakers have been recalling cars to fix the problem for several years, but neither Takata nor the NHTSA have identified a firm cause.
The agency opened a formal investigation into the problem in June, and a theory put forth in agency documents suggests the chemical used to inflate the air bag can be altered by high humidity, making it explode with too much force while deploying.
“It’s in a total state of uproar right now,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.
NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman said in a statement that responding to the recalls is essential to keep people safe.
“It will aid in our ongoing investigation into Takata air bags and what appears to be a problem related to extended exposure to consistently high humidity and temperatures,” he said.
The agency, he said, is tracking down the “full geographic scope” of the issue.
Kathryn Henry, a spokesperson for the safety agency, said it is unclear whether a high number of inquiries caused its website to malfunction.
Until it’s repaired, she urged car owners to go to manufacturer websites or call their car dealer.
GM, which sold two models with the faulty air bags, planned to notify about 10,000 customers by overnight mail.
The models covered are 2003 to 2005 Pontiac Vibes in high humidity areas and Saab 9-2X models.
The cars were made by other manufacturers—the Vibes by Toyota, and the Saabs by Subaru.
The rare warning by regulators comes three weeks after a Sept. 29 crash near Orlando, Fla., that claimed the life Hien Thi Tran, who suffered severe neck wounds that investigators said could have been caused by metal fragments flying out of the air bag on her 2001 Honda Accord.
Her Accord was among the models being recalled.
One police agency concluded that the air bags caused her wounds, while another is still investigating.
The NHTSA is seeking information in the case.
Earlier this week, Toyota issued a recall covering passenger air bags in 247,000 older model vehicles including the Corolla, Matrix, Sequoia and Tundra, as well as the Lexus SC.
Like many earlier recalls, Toyota’s recall covers vehicles only in areas that have high absolute humidity.
GM and Toyota each told customers not to let anyone sit in the front passenger seat until repairs are made.
Toyota said it’s working with Takata to pinpoint the cause of the rupture and to gauge the influence of high absolute humidity, which is a measurement of water vapour in the air.
—With files from The Canadian Press