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Hawaii among states involved in airbag recall


Big Island dealerships are gearing up to address an auto recall caused by airbags that can malfunction in hot, humid climates.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Monday that BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota will recall cars sold in humid areas such as Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The older-model cars have air bag inflators that can rupture. If that happens, the air bags might not work properly in a crash, and shards from the broken system could fly out and cause injury.

The automakers all have air bag systems made by Takata Corp., a Tokyo-based supplier of seat belts, air bags, steering wheels and other auto parts.

Wayne De Luz, whose family owns and operates numerous dealerships on the island, including Big Island Toyota, Big Island Motors, and De Luz Chevrolet, said Monday he had just received the recall notice from Toyota, and still was unsure how many vehicles on the Big Island could be affected.

“I’m guessing we’ll be looking at a list of something in the vicinity of no more than 2,000 cars,” he said of the Toyota recall.

Now that the word has been sent to dealers, De Luz said two important factors will come into play concerning how quickly the repairs and/or inspections can be completed.

“One will be the availability of parts, and two will be the notification of the owners,” he said.

If past recalls serve as any guide, De Luz anticipates he will receive an initial shipment of parts to fix about 30 percent of the affected vehicles.

“They don’t know how many cars are still in operation, how many have been totaled, moved, etc. So, as a rule of thumb, they’ll ship you about a third of the parts you need for the vehicles they show in your area. Then, as the claims start going through, they’ll give priority to more people coming in. It’s a very efficient system,” he said.

Work on the recalled automobiles will be performed only by factory certified technicians, De Luz said.

“We assign specific technicians for recalls now,” he said. “The reason being is that we always want consistency and quality in the repair. Someone who does it repetitively is more familiar. In this case, they’ll want us to inspect the module, in some cases they want us to replace it, and then we’ll need special handling to dispose of them, because the gas pellets used to deploy the bags can be dangerous to handle. … If need be, we’ll hire more technicians to handle our regularly scheduled repairs.”

De Luz added that customers can visit the “Service” sections at bigislandtoyota.com or bigislandmotors.com to find out more about the recalls and to schedule repair if appropriate.

Big Island Honda and Kamaaina Motors did not respond to phone calls seeking information by presstime Monday.

The NHTSA opened an investigation this month after getting six reports of air bags rupturing in Florida and Puerto Rico. Three people were injured in those cases. It had estimated 1.1 million vehicles automakers in the U.S. could be affected, but the total is likely to climb.

Honda, for example, said it will include 10 states and territories in its recall, including Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. Honda says Takata recommended recalling cars in four places: Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The government says it wanted to act quickly in warm states while it continues to investigate the issue.

“Based on the limited data available at this time, NHTSA supports efforts by automakers to address the immediate risk in areas that have consistently hot, humid conditions over extended periods of time,” the agency said in a statement.

Honda says too much pressure may be building up in the system, causing the air bags to deploy with too much force.

In one complaint last August, a Honda driver’s lawyer told NHTSA the car was in a crash, and both driver and passenger air bags inflated. The driver’s air bag inflator ruptured “and propelled a one-inch piece of shrapnel into the driver’s right eye.” The driver lost sight and suffered cuts requiring 100 stitches to close, the complaint said.

Takata’s air bags have been the subject of multiple recalls in recent months.

In April 2013, Toyota, Honda and Nissan recalled nearly 3.4 million older-model vehicles worldwide because of a problem with the propellant in the air bags that could lead to fires.

But Takata recently realized that recall didn’t include all of the potentially faulty air bags. Earlier this month, Toyota recalled 2.27 million more cars globally. And on Monday in Japan, Honda, Mazda and Nissan together recalled nearly 3 million more.

Auto manufacturers will contact owners of affected vehicles in the coming weeks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.