The auto industry isn’t doing enough to reach consumers and get defective and potentially lethal Takata airbags repaired or replaced, a comprehensive review of the massive recall concludes.

The report from an independent monitor cites progress in the two years since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began coordinating the recall with the industry, including 19 involved automakers. But it also points out that just a few companies are aggressively pursuing strategies the monitor sees as most effective.

The report praised some automakers for leveraging social media channels, translating recall letters into Spanish and even going door-to-door to find cars with defective airbags. It criticized other automakers who seemed to be doing little more than what was required by the letter of the law and leaving it at that. 

According to the review, the five companies with the lowest percentage of recalls completed are: Mercedes Benz (2 percent), Mitsubishi (23 percent), Mazda (28 percent), BMW (29 percent) and Fiat Chrysler (30 percent)

Automakers with the best completion rates at the end of October include Honda (65 percent), Subaru (50 percent), GM (46 percent), and Toyota (46 percent). Tesla, which has a smaller population of cars with Takata airbags installed, has repaired 79 percent.

As the recall program drags on years after the first airbag recall was issued, a frustratingly large number of cars remain on the road with potentially explosive and fatal Takata airbags.

As of today, there are 46 million airbag inflators under recall in 34 million vehicles. It remains the largest and most complex automotive recall in U.S. history.

At least 13 deaths have been linked to defective Takata airbags, which can spray metal shrapnel when they explosively deploy.  Airbags, in general, are still considered one of the most effective auto safety features and responsible for saving many lives over several decades.

Consumer Reports contacted the automakers with the best and worst completion rates. It's important to note that not all automakers are the same when it comes to exposure to the defective airbags, a factor that could be impact response rates.

Mercedes, for example, said it has never recorded an airbag injury or death from a defective Takata airbag and said its completion rate is so low because NHTSA has not prioritized its cars because replacement parts are scarce.

Honda, on the other hand, has the highest completion rate but also the highest percentage of vehicles with defective airbags. And some Takata airbags in Hondas have been linked to deaths.      


Check Consumer Reports' 
comprehensive guide to the Takata airbag recall.  
 

Public Safety at Stake in Recall

David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, says the industry has been too slow in addressing this serious issue of public safety.

“Takata and the auto industry as a whole are not doing enough to protect consumers from deadly, defective airbags, as this report makes clear,” Friedman said. “Some companies are not taking the issue seriously enough to even take basic steps that their marketing departments use every day to pull in customers.”

In its statement about the review, NHTSA said recall rates vary widely by automaker. Companies that have ramped up their outreach efforts have doubled or even tripled completion rates of those that haven’t.

The most successful companies have gone well beyond the traditional letter in the mail, trying to reach customers in multiple different ways, including door-to-door canvassing, social media and text messaging, the regulators said.

“There is still much work to be done by all involved,” NHTSA said in the statement.

What Consumers Should Know

Some of the automakers’ shortcomings are clearly articulated deep in the body of the monitor’s report, which offers extensive interviews with real consumers, with dealers, and with the automakers themselves. Among consumers, there’s a lack of trust with automakers whose image has suffered from years of poor behavior, including the VW diesel emissions scandal and the GM ignition switch scandal.

Dealers described a lack of incentives to perform recall repairs, and automakers aren’t tracking individual dealer performance, they say. Some automakers who regularly deal with their customers via the Internet, social media, or mobile apps aren’t using those channels to talk about the Takata recalls, regulators complain. Others aren’t bothering to publish notices in Spanish as well as in English.

And some of the most dangerous vehicles previously identified by NHTSA still have large numbers of unrepaired vehicles. In a new fact sheet the agency is releasing today, it’s calling out owners of these vehicles in particular to arrange repairs as soon as possible: the 2001-2002 Honda Accord, 2001-2002 Honda Civic, 2002-2003 Acura TL, 2002 Honda CR-V, 2002 Honda Odyssey, 2003 Acura CL and the 2003 Honda Pilot.

A critical way to make sure every company is doing its part is to publicize who is following best practices and who isn't, Friedman said. If automakers are failing consumers, NHTSA should explore new, stronger consent orders and significant fines to hold them accountable, he said. 

According to NHTSA, consumers should:

  • Find your car’s VIN number and check it on safercar.gov or your manufacturer’s VIN lookup tool to see if there’s an open recall.
  • Call your dealer and schedule your free repair; NHTSA says earlier airbag shortages have largely been resolved.
  • Sign up at NHTSA.gov/Alerts to be notified of any future recalls for your vehicle.
  • Get answers to frequently asked questions at NHTSA.gov/recall-spotlight/takata-air-bags.
Here's what the automakers told us about what they're doing to reach airbag-recall vehicle owners:

    • Honda, the automaker with by far the highest numbers of affected models and vehicles, has done the most to reach out to customers, and that's reflected in its repair rate. Honda doubled the size of its customer relations department, with multiple phone calls directed at each Takata airbag vehicle owner. It uses text messages and local call centers where dealers who know their communities track down nonresponsive owners. It has flashed recall notices on the scoreboards at sporting events and has even hired private detectives to track down owners of older cars that may have been sold several times. 
 
   • Tesla said a fleet of mobile service vans has helped increase its completion rate. The vans can go to where the customer is, at home, work or any convenient place. The vans even have espresso machines and other amenities for customers while they wait for repairs.
 
    • Fiat Chrysler is also using a mobile repair service and it has partnered with the National Safety Council on a public education campaign.
 
    • Toyota said it's making improvements to its website to make it easier to find recall information, and it's making sure its dealers have the support they need.


    • Mercedes Benz said its low repair rate reflects the fact that most of its affected models haven't been in the priority groups organized by NHTSA to date. The repair completion rate for priority groups that have included Mercedes vehicles is 32 percent rather than 2 percent for the entire population of vehicles. "While we haven't had any instances of this airbag malfunction in any of our vehicles, our customers are concerned about this situation, and we're doing everything we can to expedite this," company spokeswoman Donna Boland said in an e-mail.

    • GM said it has identified 92 percent of its Takata airbag owners, and it's working to make sure it gets as many of them to the dealer as it can, said spokesman Tom Wilkinson. It's reaching out via phone, email, regular mail, online ads and targeted social media. 

    • Subaru said its high completion rate has been aided because it only has to replace one type of airbag, on the passenger side.

    • Mazda is actively engaged in sending multiple emails and postcards, live and automated outgoing telephone calls and texts, Facebook and digital messaging, and advertising directed toward affected owners, according to spokeswoman Tamara Mlynarczyk. "Given the age of the affected vehicles, and the multiple owners that most vehicles have had, contacting owners and opening a dialog with them has made this the most challenging recall situation the auto industry has encountered," she said. 

    • BMW and Mitsubishi didn't respond to our request for comment. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).