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BMW and Australia’s vehicle safety regulators are set to be at the centre of a NSW coroner’s inquest into what appears to be Australia’s second Takata airbag fatality.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has confirmed that an unnamed person was killed in NSW in September this year, due to the “suspected misdeployment” of a Takata airbag. A spokesperson said the ACCC “understood” the NSW Coroner was investigating the BMW fatality, though as yet there has been no announcement of a new coroner’s inquest. 

BMW told Inq it would make no comment because the matter was under “continued investigation”.

The NSW Coroner is already part way through an inquest into Australia’s first known Takata airbag fatality, that of 58-year-old Sydney man Huy Neng Ngo, who bled to death in the driver’s seat of his Honda CR-V in July 2017 after a faulty airbag exploded and shot a piece of metal from the centre of his steering wheel into the base of his neck.

The BMW accident is significant because in this case the car was fitted with a Takata airbag which uses a propellant known as NADI 5-AT. Up until very recently, Australia’s Takata airbag recall has focused almost entirely on airbags using the explosive substance ammonium nitrate as the propellant.

The ACCC has provided new details on two further Takata incidents involving the NADI 5-AT airbag. The first, again involving a BMW, occurred in June this year in South Australia. According to additional information held by US government safety regulators the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the faulty airbag had been “transplanted from a salvaged vehicle”.

The second incident involves a Toyota and occurred in Victoria in June 2017, though the ACCC has told Inq it only became aware of the incident in mid-November this year. The NHTSA reports that in the Toyota case, the fault was a “slow deployment” of the airbag, rather than the explosive deployment of other Takata accidents. 

In both cases, the faulty airbag left the (unidentified) drivers with injuries which the ACCC described as “serious”. The ACCC has not named the victims nor has it detailed the extent of the injuries. However, Takata airbag accidents have been devastating in the United States, where dozens of victims have been left with severe face, neck and chest injuries.

Stephanie Erdmann’s experience was used to warn American drivers of the dangers of the faulty Takata airbag.

In April 2017, a 21-year-old Darwin woman lost an eye and was left with permanent brain damage after a piece of shrapnel entered her brain through the eye socket. That incident also involved a Toyota, though in this case with an ammonium nitrate propellant.

While BMW might find itself in the dock over the recent fatality in NSW, the case of Toyota raises questions about how much the car maker knew, what it told the safety regulators and what the regulators did with that information.

The first question is why it took two and a half years before the ACCC became aware of the incident in Victoria in June 2017. It was likely the first of its kind in Australia — though not internationally — and may have rung the bell on an emerging problem involving the NADI propellant.

A Toyota spokesperson told Inq: “At the time, when Toyota Australia was made aware of the incident we immediately conducted a thorough investigation. Subsequently, in November 2019 when authorities requested information about Takata NADI inflators, Toyota provided this information swiftly and transparently.”

The second question relates to the actions of Australia’s safety regulators, the ACCC and the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD), who have had a shared — and occasionally overlapping — responsibility for the Takata airbag recall, with DIRD as the specialist agency and the ACCC holding the ultimate power to compel car manufacturers to take action.

Freedom of information documents obtained by Inq show that there was confusion between the two safety agencies about how to deal with Toyota and a type of airbag which, though manufactured by Takata, carried the name of another company, called TRW. Emails between the two agencies record that the TRW airbags were not included in a compulsory Takata recall because they were not named as “Takata” airbags even though, a DIRD official noted, “the symptoms [were] identical to what is described with Takata failures”.

An ACCC spokesperson has told Inq that “TRW” airbags with NADI propellant were subject to a voluntary recall only which was run by Toyota from early 2017, before the Victorian accident. It appears the airbags were not ultimately included in a compulsory recall. The ACCC told Inq it was continuing to make inquiries in relation to the manufacture of the airbags.

Finally there are questions for both the ACCC and DIRD on why Takata airbags using the NADI propellant have not been covered as part of Australia’s compulsory recall of Takata airbags, given that US authorities have warned for several years of the dangers associated with NADI propellant. 

In May 2016 NHTSA notified Takata of a NADI rupture that had occurred in 2012 where a driver sustained severe injuries. A subsequent investigation found there was a “high proportion” of leaking tape seals affecting inflators “from the earliest manufacturing time period”. It is vehicles manufactured in precisely this period, 1996 to 1999, which are covered by a new ACCC safety alert announced this week. A further 78,000 cars are expected to be pulled off the road as part of a voluntary recall run by car manufacturers due to the risk of NADI airbags.

The new injuries and fatality disclosed by the ACCC means Takata airbags have now killed two people and injured a further four since Australia’s first previously documented incident in Darwin in 2017. Last week Inq revealed that there were a further four Takata incidents, at least, which car manufacturers had apparently withheld from the ACCC and which only became known after the ACCC used its compulsory information gathering powers.

Inq also revealed that the ACCC and DIRD had agreed to a request from BMW to keep quiet about a serious incident involving a faulty Takata airbag which had been removed from an ageing BMW. Internal ACCC briefing papers obtained by Inq reported that “a 5cm long piece of metal from the rupture” had been found “on the roof of a nearby building”, in an incident which took place in September 2016 and was described as the first known misdeployment of a Takata airbag in Australia and “a significant development”.

With more incidents slowly coming to light, it may be that the Takata nightmare is far from over.

Peter Fray

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