I-Team: Thousands of Mainers still waiting for a fix for recalled airbags
STATEWIDE (WGME) -- Airbags are supposed to help save your life if you get in a crash, but federal safety regulators say some are causing deaths and severe injuries.
Millions of Takata airbags were recalled because of a dangerous defect, but the I-Team discovered there aren't enough replacements and millions of people are driving cars that may pose a deadly risk.
In Maine, it's taking even longer for the fix to arrive.
Elizabeth Hayes calls her 2009 Mustang convertible her pride and joy.
"It really caught my eye -- the bright red," Hayes said.
She said while it looks as shiny as the day she bought it, in her mind, it's lost some of its luster since safety recall notices started showing up in the mail two years ago.
"It never leaves my mind when I start my car up and start driving down the road," Hayes said.
According to the letter she got from Ford, if she gets in a crash, metal fragments from the airbag could strike vehicle occupants causing "serious injury or death."
Federal safety regulators say airbags like the one in her car are linked to at least 11 deaths and 180 injuries across the country.
"Every time I go out in this car I say a prayer. I say, 'God protect me from the airbag,'" Hayes said.
Hayes wants to get her airbag issue taken care of.
They were made by Takata and now part of what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls the largest and most complex safety recall in history.
"This issue is urgent," said former NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind.
But the I-Team discovered there aren't enough replacement parts for every airbag that's been recalled.
Dan Kagan is a Maine attorney focused on defective products and wrongful death and injury.
He said the delay in replacing the airbags is unacceptable.
"This is huge. This is a real safety threat," he said.
An estimated 70 million Takata airbags were recalled in the United States, but according to federal data reviewed by the I-Team, less than a quarter of those recalled airbags have been fixed.
NHTSA said it will be at least two more years before there are enough replacements.
"The manufacturers of the cars themselves are beside themselves. They are extremely upset that Takata has first of all created this problem in the first place, and Takata can't produce enough airbags to replace the airbags right away," Kagan said.
Hayes got her driver-side airbag replaced but is still waiting for the passenger side.
In fact, she's been waiting for more than a year and a search of her vehicle identification number shows the "remedy is not yet available."
NHTSA said it will be a while longer.
Because these airbags seem more vulnerable to high heat and humidity, vehicle owners in hot and humid states are getting replacements first.
Northern and less humid areas will get replacement parts last.
I'm very nervous, but I can't afford to get another car, and I could never sell this to anyone so I'm really stuck," Hayes said.
The Department of Justice alleges that for more than a decade Takata lied to customers about the safety of its airbags.
In fact, they said Takata's own test results showed their airbags could explode, sending shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
According to internal company emails, referenced in court documents, three Takata executives talked about manipulating test data and the need to "xx" anything unfavorable.
"Let's face it, some of these Takata executives have been indicted. This is major wrongdoing," Attorney Kagan said.
In January, Takata pleaded guilty to wire fraud for falsifying testing data and reports.
As part of the deal, the company will pay a $1 billion in penalties and put money into a fund for airbag replacements.
"Takata deeply regrets the circumstances that have led to this situation," said Shigehisa Takada, Chairman and CEO.
Takada also said in January that the company is investing significant resources to maximize recall completion rates.
Kagan said for now customers are left in limbo with little practical guidance from federal safety regulators.
"It's almost laughable the advice they give you -- maybe you should drive a little less. That's literally on the website -- drive less and carpool with people who don't have these airbags," he said.
Earlier this week Takata filed for bankruptcy.
Takata and the automakers say recalled cars will still be fixed and Takata will continue to make replacement parts until the process is finished.
NHTSA says while you're waiting definitely do not disable your airbags; it's far more likely that your airbag will perform properly.
They said you can also ask your dealer for a free loner or rental car, but they aren't required to give you one.
Honda and Acura dealers are providing loaners; Ford is not.