A Nevada crash that nearly killed a young woman has exposed a hole in the government’s efforts to get dangerous Takata air bag inflators off the road: There’s nothing that prevents the devices from being taken from wrecked cars and reused.
Karina Dorado’s trachea was punctured by shrapnel from an inflator in an otherwise minor crash in Las Vegas on March 3. She was rushed to a trauma center, where surgeons removed pieces that damaged her vocal cords. She is still being treated for neck injuries.
Dorado, 18, is among nearly 200 people injured or killed by the inflators, which can explode when the chemical propellant inside deteriorates. What’s different about her case is how the inflator wound up in her 2002 Honda Accord in the first place.
Dorado’s father, Jose, bought the car for her in March of last year so she could get to and from her job at a customer service call center, attorneys for the family said Wednesday. The family did not know the car’s history, including that it had been wrecked in Phoenix and declared a total loss by an insurance company in 2015, the attorneys said.
According to AutoCheck, a service that tracks vehicle histories, the car was given a salvage title, repaired and resold in Las Vegas last spring.
Engineers from Honda inspected Dorado’s car after the crash and traced the serial number from the blown-apart inflator to a 2001 Accord, which had been covered by a recall but never had the inflator replaced.
Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the air bag in the 2001 Accord must have been removed by a salvage yard, or perhaps stolen. Somehow it ended up at the shop that repaired the car eventually bought by the Dorados.
It’s legal under federal law for air bag assemblies or other parts subject to recall to be pulled out of wrecked cars and sold by junkyards to repair shops that may not know the danger.
No government agency monitors the transactions. In addition, no states appear to have laws against the reuse of recalled parts.
“What there should be is a program that prevents old air bags from being recycled,” said Michael Brooks, acting director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.
Carfax, another auto history tracking service, said it is unknown just how many cars are sold each year with salvage titles, but they number in the thousands.
At least 16 people have been killed by Takata inflators worldwide and more than 180 injured. The problem touched off the biggest automotive recall in U.S. history, with 69 million inflators recalled. About 100 million have been recalled globally. Takata has been fined and faces lawsuits, and it could be driven into bankruptcy.
Kent Emison, an attorney for the Dorado family, said that given the huge size of the Takata recall, millions of inflators are probably still in use and unaccounted for by authorities.
“People are not going to know until it’s too late that they have a defective Takata air bag,” he said.
The inflator that nearly killed Dorado was among the most dangerous made by Takata. In testing, inflators taken from older Hondas had a 50 percent chance of blowing apart, prompting the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue desperate pleas for people to get them replaced.
Unlike most other air bag makers, Takata used the chemical ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion to inflate the bags in a crash. But the chemical deteriorates over time when exposed to heat and humidity, causing it to burn too fast and blow apart a metal canister.
Attorneys for the Dorado family said they are trying to find out where Jose Dorado bought the Accord.
“It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened,” said Billie-Marie Morrison, another family attorney. “You would think in today’s age with communication technology these types of things should not be allowed to happen.”