WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government appears poised to order a recall of millions of air bag inflators due to a manufacturing flaw that could send metal shrapnel rocketing through a car's interior.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration held a public hearing Thursday to field commentary and testimony on inflators made by ARC Automotive Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, which supplies the devices to air bag makers and several major auto companies. At least 25 million vehicles containing ARC-made air bags could be affected.
At the heart of the issue is a metal inflator canister inside the airbag device. The government contends that a crucial flaw could cause this canister to "rupture" upon impact. Instead of releasing pressurized gas to inflate the air bag, the canister essentially explodes, sending metal shrapnel into the vehicle at head height.
"These injuries can be gruesome and can happen in crashes where otherwise the individual would have walked away from the crash unharmed," Bruce York of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said.
Another NHTSA official, Sharon Yukevich, said the continued presence of the inflators was "an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death to vehicle occupants."
She added, "The data and evidence suggests that this will happen again. The timing is unpredictable."
In May the agency asked ARC to recall the inflators, which it says are responsible for at least seven injuries and two deaths in the United States and Canada since 2009. ARC has refused to issue a full-scale recall, setting the stage for the possible court fight.
NHTSA announced last month it had made an initial decision that the inflators made by ARC and under license by another company are defective. Thursday's hearing was one of the final steps before the agency can issue a formal recall order and take the case to court for enforcement.
Initially NHTSA said that an estimated 67 million inflators should be recalled, but it revised the number to 52 million due to manufacturer responses in its investigation that overcounted the number.
Neither NHTSA nor ARC nor the automakers have released a full list of car models with the inflators.
The company maintains that no safety defect exists, that NHTSA's demand is based on a hypothesis rather than technical conclusions, and that the agency has no authority to order a parts manufacturer, rather than a vehicle manufacturer, to announce recalls.
"The safety of the motoring public is the cornerstone of our business," said Steve Gold, ARC's vice-president of product integrity. "Any personal injury or loss of life is a serious matter."
But Gold said the company had concluded that the examples being cited by NHTSA were "isolated incidents and are not indicative of systemic defect."
He said the government would be setting a dangerous precedent by targeting a parts supplier rather than a vehicle manufacturer in ordering a recall. Gold also denied NHTSA's contention that his company had not fully cooperated with the agency's investigation, saying it had submitted "tens of thousands of documents" as requested.
The hearing also featured emotional testimony from Jacob Tarvis, whose mother, Marlene Beaudoin, died as a result of an exploding air bag inflator in 2021. Beaudoin, a 40-year-old single mother of 10 from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was driving to get ice cream with four of her sons in the car when it was involved in a minor crash. The shrapnel from the ruptured inflator pierced her neck; she died several hours later.
"It is my sincere hope that no others will have to go through the terrible ordeal that my family has and is enduring," said Tarvis, who became the legal guardian for six of his younger siblings "How many others have suffered or will suffer?"
General Motors, one of several major car manufacturers using ARC air bag inflators, issued a statement that echoed the comments of Gold, the ARC official, saying that years of investigation had failed to definitively point out a systemic design flaw.
"GM will continue to work collaboratively with NHTSA, other manufacturers, and ARC to monitor and investigate the long-term performance and safety of ARC airbag inflators," the statement said. "If GM concludes at any time that any unrecalled ARC inflators are unsafe, the company will take appropriate action in cooperation with NHTSA."