Government Wins Protection for 33.8 Million Drivers in Largest Product Recall in U.S. History

Imagine you’re hit from behind while driving. Your vehicle's airbags deploy, but instead of cushioning you, bits of metal shrapnel are sent flying. That’s what has happened to more than 100 drivers since 2007.

Six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been attributed to defects in the small component that inflates the airbag. It seems humidity degrades the casing around the chemicals, causing the inflator to sometimes explode. The components’ Japanese manufacturer, Takata, has been slow to accept responsibility for this defective product.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), created in 1966, oversees vehicle safety standards and ensures that vehicles, vehicle components like tires, and vehicle accessories like child safety seats comply with U.S. safety standards. NHTSA gathers information about problems from a variety of sources, including from citizens who report safety concerns. Go to its website or call the Vehicle Safety hotline (1-866-327-4236) to let NHTSA know if you’ve had a vehicle-related safety problem or to determine if your car has a Takata airbag or other recall issue.

When the agency sees patterns emerge that indicate widespread problems, they contact the manufacturers of the products in question. If a manufacturer agrees there is a problem and offers a remedy to correct the defect, NHTSA works with the company to initiate a voluntary recall. Since its founding in 1966, NHTSA has overseen the recall and repair of more than 400 million motor vehicles, 46 million tires, and 42 million child safety seats.

When companies are unwilling to assume responsibility for defects, NHTSA can issue a formal finding that the product is defective. This action informs consumers that there is a problem with the product and is the first step to requiring companies to take responsibility. NHTSA issued its findings on the dangers of Takada’s airbags last November. If Takata had not agreed to assume responsibility as it did earlier this week, NHTSA’s next move would have been to take its findings to U.S. District Court and seek a court order for Takata to address its defective products.

Tuesday’s recall involves 33.8 million vehicles, 13 percent of the vehicles on America’s roads today. It is the largest product recall of any kind in U.S. history, surpassing Johnson and Johnson’s 1982 voluntary recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol after some of its products were criminally poisoned on store shelves.

Now that the airbag recall has been undertaken, NHTSA’s now moves to making sure the repairs are undertaken in a timely fashion. A major challenge is the shortage of replacement kits needed to fix the problem. Takata is currently making 450,000 kits a month and expects to double its production by September. In the meantime NHTSA is working with Takata to transfer the knowledge necessary for others to manufacture the kits, so cars can be repaired more quickly.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is one of a network of government agencies that oversee consumer product safety.

A number of government agencies have responsibility for establishing product safety standards and assuring that products that fail to meet those standards are either removed from the market or are recalled and repaired. Each of these agencies relies on consumer reporting of problems in order to help prioritize their efforts to protect the public.

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees consumer products, including things like children’s toys, household appliances, and clothing.
  • The Food and Drug Administration protects our nation’s food (other than meat) and drug supplies, including cosmetics.
  • The EPA oversees pesticides and other chemicals used in the home.
  • The Coast Guard oversees pleasure boats and boating equipment, like life preservers and lifeboats.
  • The US Department of Agriculture oversees the nation’s meat supply.

In 2003, the federal government brought these six agencies together in a common web portal called as a one-stop shop for government recalls. At the site you can report a problem or concern about a product and look up information on current recalls, including what to do if you own or use a recalled product.

While was an important initiative, it is not as easy to use or helpful as it could or should be. The Center for Effective Government has previously identified several problems with the website.  Visitors have to know which agency to select to get information on the product of concern. Instead of drawing all recall information into one central database, users are taken to each of the agency’s individual sites. In the 18 months since our original analysis, we see few signs of improvement in’s functionality. This is a pity, as the shared website concept is an important one. To learn about CEG’s evaluation of this portal, see E-Gov Spotlight: Centralized Product Recall Portal Needs Significant Improvement.

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good read