About 34 million passenger vehicles in the United States may be affected by the recall of defective airbags announced last month. The recall is necessary because defective parts, including an inflator and propellant devices, cause airbags manufactured by Takata to rupture, hurling metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment with explosive force.

Nearly one out of every seven cars on the road in the United States has a Takata airbag that is subject to the recall. Unfortunately for Bay Area motorists, it may take as long as two years for the defective parts to be replaced. According to a recent story in the San Jose Mercury News, some local dealers are able to make the repairs swiftly while others are telling customers that parts will be unavailable for several months. Since some automakers are unsure which of their cars will need to be recalled, the problem is likely to get worse as additional recall notices are issued.

The Takata recall

An investigation last year by the New York Times revealed that Takata should have been alerted to the problem in 2004, when an exploding airbag injured the driver of a Honda Accord. Takata decided the explosion was an “anomaly” and failed to investigate its cause. As reports of airbag explosions in Hondas grew in the years that followed — including the gruesome report of a woman who bled to death in front of her children after shrapnel tore into her neck and chest — neither Takata nor Honda notified Honda owners of the problem. Just as disturbing is Takata’s failure to notify BMW and other customers that those manufacturers were installing a potentially deadly product in their vehicles.

On several occasions over the last ten years, Honda recalled limited numbers of vehicles to replace defective airbags, each time claiming that the problem had been resolved. Honda did not disclose its complete death and injury statistics to the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration (NHTSA) until 2011. When it finally reported the statistics, it did so in a confidential submission, preventing the public from learning the full extent of the problem. While Honda periodically reported to NHTSA that defective airbags were responsible for individual injuries, it did not disclose that Takata’s airbags were prone to explosion.

For several years, Takata gave varying explanations for the explosions without admitting that defective airbags in millions of cars and trucks exposed occupants to the risk of injury or death. Takata initially denied that the defects plaguing Honda airbags affected the airbags it sold to BMW, a denial that Takata has since retracted. Takata sold defective airbags to a number of additional automobile manufacturers, including Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, Chrysler, GM, and others.

Shortly after the New York Times story appeared, NHTSA began to take the issue seriously. It pressured Takata for more information and eventually imposed fines of $14,000 a day for Takata’s failure to cooperate with its investigation. Takata announced its airbag recall about three months after those fines began to be levied.

Death by airbag

Airbags save more lives than they take. The Department of Transportation credits airbags with saving the lives of 37,000 vehicle occupants between 1987 and 2012. Still, NHTSA reports that as of 2003, 231 people (including 87 children) lost their lives due to airbag deployment. Others died because airbags failed to deploy.

While airbags are generally safe, particularly when used together with a lap belt and shoulder harness, medical studies establish that airbag deployment sometimes creates the risk of a serious injury. That is particularly true in the United States, where airbags inflate more quickly than those in Europe in an effort to protect unbelted occupants. The risk is greater when occupants sit within ten inches of the deploying airbag, particularly when the occupants are short.

Many airbag-induced injuries are hidden. Internal injuries, including ruptured blood vessels, are not always apparent to the vehicle’s occupants or to the emergency room doctors who examine them. Deaths have been attributed to hidden cardiac and thoracic injuries.

Airbag defects contribute to the risk of injury. When the airbag fails to deploy, inflates with too much or too little force, inflates spontaneously or in a low-speed impact that should not cause an airbag deployment, or breaks open while inflating, the risk of injury is magnified. At least 140 injuries and several deaths have been caused by Takata’s exploding airbags.

What you should know

Car and Driver has assembled a full list of the vehicles that are affected by Takata’s recalls, although that list is likely to grow as manufacturers continue to identify the affected vehicles. As new recalls are announced, they are added to a website created by NHTSA. If your vehicle is affected by a recall, have your defective airbag components replaced as soon as your dealer can has parts available.

If you were injured or if a loved one died as the result of an airbag deployment, a personal injury lawyer can evaluate your case to determine whether a product defect contributed to the injury or death. Victims of defective airbags are entitled to compensation for injuries that airbag makers should have foreseen and prevented. Compensation can include payment of medical bills, reimbursement of lost wages, and the cost of accommodating disabilities. Victims can also be compensated for their pain, suffering and emotional distress, and for the wrongful death of a family member.

It is vital to preserve the evidence if you were injured by an airbag deployment. If your vehicle was a total loss, do not sell it for scrap or surrender it to your insurance company. Store the vehicle until a personal injury lawyer can determine whether it should be inspected by an engineer.

Keep in mind that time limits for bringing injury claims are short. Contact a personal injury lawyer for a case evaluation as soon as you become aware that a serious injury or death might have been caused by an airbag.