The Takata air bag mess: Danger and confusion mount

If you think the Takata air bag problem doesn't apply to your car, you may be in for a surprise.

As the scope of the defect gets ever wider, thousands of consumers may be unknowingly driving cars that include the faulty Takata air bag inflators. More than 60 million inflators in U.S. vehicles may eventually be recalled, or about one in out of every four cars. But a new report issued this week found that four automakers are still manufacturing new vehicles with the type of inflators that are linked to the defects that have caused as many as 13 deaths and 100 injuries.

These devices pose serious issues, which may not be immediately apparent to drivers given there's no outward sign that anything could be wrong with the inflators. However, they include a highly volatile chemical called ammonium nitrate, which was used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Inside the inflators, the chemical can degrade with age, moisture and temperature fluctuations, leading to suddenly inflated airbags that can send shrapnel flying toward a vehicle's occupants.

With tens of millions of these inflators installed in cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and automakers are prioritizing which vehicles to recall first, based on the car's age and whether it's located in a state with high humidity or temperature fluctuations. But that means many consumers may not be yet aware that their vehicles are part of the recall.

"It's kind of a mess on so many levels," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst of Kelley Blue Book. "There's no way you can recall all these cars simultaneously. You can't snap your fingers and have 60 million air bags replaced tomorrow."

The decision to prioritize the recall by age and location is also confusing and poses more questions than answers, Brauer noted. For instance, a driver in a dry climate like Arizona with an older-model Honda Civic equipped with one of the airbags may not meet the criteria for getting bumped up to the front of the line. But she may have bought that car from a seller in a high-humidity state like Florida, which would add to the risk that the inflator could explode.

However, it's not clear that the NHTSA or the automakers are tracking vehicle history, Brauer said.

Because the recall is so large and not every driver has been contacted, consumers should search the NHTSA's online VIN-lookup tool, which will tell you if your vehicle has one of the faulty inflators.

The recall process has also been confusing for drivers who already received a recall notice. In many cases, the dealers don't have the replacement parts on hand, which means consumers have to make the choice of whether to stop driving the car until the part is available and ask for a loaner from the dealer, or rent a replacement vehicle. If an air bag with a faulty inflator is on the passenger's side, don't allow anyone to sit there, according to Consumer Reports.

Of course, renting a car might not solve the problem if that vehicle also has a faulty airbag. This could be an issue, given that four automakers -- Fiat Chrysler (FCAU), Mitsubishi, Toyota (TM) and Volkswagen (VLKAY) -- are still making new vehicles with the type of inflator linked to the explosions. In the meantime, lawmakers are calling for automakers to halt the practice.

"It is reprehensible and possibly illegal that automakers are knowingly sending Americans home in new cars that are equipped with the same ticking time bombs that have caused injuries and taken lives across our country," said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D.-Massachusetts) on Facebook.

The risk of continuing to drive a car with a faulty Takata inflator may not be big, but it's not getting any smaller as time passes, Brauer noted.

"These air bags are like bottles of milk or bananas. They get less likely to perform over time," he said. "What is the chance of getting one thrown at you? It may be very low. What's the chance in two weeks? Higher than it is now."