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Only 18% of recalled air bags replaced; southern drivers most at risk

Federal regulators want Takata, automakers to pick up pace of repairs

DETROIT – As the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history enters its third year, the federal government is concerned that automakers are not moving faster to fix 42 million vehicles that have potentially deadly Takata air bag inflators.

Officials from the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration released a schedule for further recalls on Friday and said the agency would require all 19 companies involved to submit plans to reach more owners. NHTSA is also requiring manufacturers to prioritize fixing affected vehicles in Florida, Texas and other states, since high humidity can increase the risk of the airbag exploding with too much force and spew shrapnel fragments into people in the car.

Some cars will have both the driver side and passenger side air bags replaced.

Eleven people have been killed by Takata inflators in the U.S. and as many as 16 worldwide. The government says about 180 people have been hurt in the U.S. alone.

As of last week, however, only 12.5 million, or about 18 percent, of the inflators had been replaced, and NHTSA said some automakers weren’t doing enough to contact owners. The agency ordered the companies to turn in a “recall engagement plan” within 90 days to increase the completion rate.

Recalls are being phased in through the end of 2020. NHTSA added sports car maker McLaren to the list of affected automakers.

NHTSA officials said the recalls have been proceeding slowly in part because of a lack of available parts. Takata has begun using other manufacturers' parts to help speed up the process.

Howard Smithson, service manager for the Tom Bush family of dealerships, said replacement of an air bag only takes about an hour but, "You just can't get enough parts to fix them quickly."

NHTSA said some consumers haven’t gotten repairs even though parts are available. The agency is urging anyone who gets a recall notice to contact a dealer and get their vehicle repaired as quickly as possible.

 "Don't hesitate to contact your dealer; don't hesitate to make certain the recall is open on it and let's get it done as fast as we can," Smithson said. 

Takata inflators use the explosive chemical ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that inflates air bags in a crash. But the chemical can deteriorate when exposed to high heat and humidity, causing it to burn too fast. That can blow apart a metal canister designed to contain the explosion.

Tom Bush dealerships won't sell any new or used car under the recall until the air bags are replaced, but Smithson added there is only a risk to drivers are passengers if air bag deployment is triggered by an accident.

"It won't go off on its own. It won't explode while you're driving down the road. The only time it will go off and create an issue is in an accident," Smithson said. "Drive safely. Don't panic."

Normally, around 70 percent of consumers complete recall repairs, the agency said. In this case, NHTSA wants the recall repair rate to achieve 100 percent.

NHTSA on Friday released a complete list of makes covered by current and future Takata recalls.  Car owners can also search their vehicle by VIN to see if it is affected by this or any other recall.