Propellant chemicals in the defective airbag inflators are believed to be vulnerable to humidity over time, causing the cartridges to explode in some cases. The metal shrapnel can then shred the airbag or cause serious injuries to occupants.
A letter authored by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward J. Markey outlines the safety concerns, primarily focusing on the uncertainty that a certain vehicle hasn’t been exposed to too much moisture just because it was not sold or registered in a state known for high humidity.
It is not uncommon for fleet vehicles to be registered in one state and then spend years in other states. U-Haul, for example, tends to register the vast majority of its vans and trucks in Arizona, regardless of their individual operation location. A significant number of college students and people with second homes also spend years of cumulative time with their vehicles in states listed among the recall regions.
“NHTSA should immediately issue a nationwide safety recall on all the affected cars, regardless of where the car is registered,” they wrote in the letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a quoted by The New York Times. “We have become increasingly troubled and alarmed by the confusing and conflicting advice being issued by NHTSA, and the glacial pace of the agency’s response to this public safety threat.”
The agency initially warned the public of defective airbags in three million vehicles, then issued another statement that expanded the scope to nearly eight million vehicles. The second notice caused the recall-lookup website to crash as a flood of concerned owners attempted to determine if their vehicle was included.
Toyota has advised owners that they can bring affected vehicles in to have the passenger airbag temporarily disabled until repair parts are available. The senators argue that loaner cars should be made available, and disabling the airbag is potentially illegal even if safer than risking shrapnel wounds in an accident.
NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman apologized for the website troubles and promised to “leave no stone unturned” in its investigation. He defended the regional handling, however, noting that cars are being recalled in states where there is a “demonstrated risk” of airbag inflator explosions.