An airbag manufacturer’s recall affecting millions of cars — and potentially thousands in Beaufort County — has so far been limited to states experiencing high humidity.
But South Carolina is not among them.
The still-expanding recalls have so far focused on the most humid areas of the country, including Georgia and Gulf Coast states, because humidity is believed to deteriorate the chemical compound used to inflate the airbags in the event of a crash.
Some carmakers, however, have extended their airbag recalls to humid coastal South Carolina and other states, but other makes and models with the potentially faulty airbags are not recalled in this state.
The recalled Takata brand airbag inflators are being scrutinized worldwide for the potential to explode, spraying metal fragments into cars’ cabins. The faulty inflators have been linked to at least five deaths nationwide.
Lawmakers, researchers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are pushing Takata to issue a nationwide recall. The manufacturer has balked, saying it should only be limited to states with high average humidity.
Kartik Kalaignanam is among industry experts and officials who believe the recall should — and eventually will — be expanded nationwide, and the Lowcountry is a good example of why.
The associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business and longtime automotive industry and recall researcher said the recall clearly “has implications for South Carolina because a lot of the coastal areas are probably prone to these types of temperature and humidity changes.”
WHY IS SC NOT IN RECALL?
Takata’s recall is based on high-humidity areas with average dew points of 60 degrees.
In Beaufort County, the average dew point over the past year is 56.8 degrees, just shy of the recall threshold, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
But if humidity is a factor, the Lowcountry’s sweltering summer months are likely to have some effect on the compound, regardless of the yearlong average, Kalaignanam said. In July, August and September, our hottest months, the average dew point soared to 73.2 degrees, according to the data.
While Takata so far has resisted calls to expand its recall, automakers have taken the issue into their own hands.
Honda, the most affected automaker with more than 9 million recalled vehicles in the U.S., has expanded its recall nationwide and overseas.
On Thursday, Ford announced it is expanding its recall nationwide. It joins Mazda, Subaru and Mitsubishi, who made similar announcements in the past month.
Toyota has expanded its passenger-side Takata airbag recall nationally, but is sticking with the regional recall for affected driver-side airbags, a company spokesperson said.
More than 7,800 — nearly 5 percent — of the 165,000 vehicles currently registered in Beaufort County match the year, make and model of cars included in the current Takata recalls, according to an analysis of county records by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
More than 3,700 of those local vehicles are Hondas that match the year, make and model for which the company has issued recalls.
The rest of the vehicles registered in the county are a smattering of the dozen other affected automakers, including Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, Mazda, Nissan, Pontiac, Saab, Subaru and Toyota.
GETING IT FIXED
While the corporate offices sort out their plans, service managers at some dealerships in Beaufort County say they are already tackling airbag fixes each week — some more than others. These local cars are ones that automakers have recalled, or ones that are part of Takata’s recall because they were built or serviced in states it deems to be of high humidity.
At Stokes Honda Beaufort, mechanics have been fixing six to 10 recalled cars a day over the past month, service manager Jim Patterson said. Despite national concerns about a shortage of replacement parts, Patterson said the dealership has had no problem getting parts shipped the next day from Honda for all the repairs.
“If it gets to the point that if we cannot satisfy the demand at the time, we’re prepared to extend our hours, too, to accommodate everyone,” Patterson said.
At Stokes Brown Toyota of Beaufort, so far, customers have only inquired about the recall, and no repairs have been made, according to service and parts director Wayne Lamb.
“We haven’t had a big influx; we have not seen any problems in this area,” he said.
Hilton Head Lexus has replaced about a dozen recalled Takata airbags in the past month, according to service manager Evan Kallas.
“There is no sense of panic from the Lexus world, because it’s a very limited recall for us for now,” Kallas said. “It’s been pretty smooth sailing.
“We have a couple of people that asked about them, but you’d think so because it’s an airbag, which can be a scary situation for most people.”
Lifelong Port Royal resident and mechanic James Davidson was not happy to find out earlier this month that his 2004 Honda Civic is part of the recall, because he has not received a notice from the company, he said.
“I’ve got my granddaughters in this car,” he said. “That’s the main one I use.”
After 30 years in the auto-repair business, Davidson said he’s not surprised to see Takata fighting to limit the scope of the recall.
“It’s a money issue to them,” he said. “... They want to come out ahead no matter what. It’s a shame.”
For Kate Houpt, the airbag recall is just another in a string of notices her family has gotten from Toyota for their 2003 Sequoia SUV over the past few years. She and her husband, John, received a recall notice for their Takata passenger-side airbag in the mail earlier this month but didn’t immediately think anything of it, she said.
The Bluffton couple have four young children, who each ride in car seats in the back, so two weeks ago Houpt contacted the Stokes-Brown Toyota dealership on U.S. 278 in southern Beaufort County to get the airbags fixed.
While some are responding to the recall, Kalaignanam, the USC professor, is concerned people aren’t getting the message or may not take it seriously. That is why he hopes the recall will expand nationwide.
“There have been so many recalls in the past, but some people disregard them,” Kalaignanam said.
“This is one of those cases where people should heed the recall, because it could be dangerous. Compliance will be a big issue nationwide.”