Bungled air bag alerts leave car owners scrambling

As if a government warning to get almost 8 million air bags fixed right away wasn't alarming enough, the nation's highway safety watchdog bungled the alerts and compounded the error when technical problems made it difficult for motorists to check to see if they were on the recall list.

Making matters worse, it's unclear if manufacturers—including major makers such as BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota—have enough replacement parts to handle repairs on a timely basis. One Honda owner said he was told it could take months before the parts arrive, and one maker already has advised motorists not to let passengers ride in the front seat of some older models until a fix is made.

The Takata Corp. logo is displayed outside the company's headquarters in Tokyo.
Koichi Kamoshida | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Takata Corp. logo is displayed outside the company's headquarters in Tokyo.

And after already increasing its recall count from 4.7 million to 7.8 million this week, a NHTSA spokesperson said a further increase could follow, noting, "The agency has an open investigation going."

Problems with air bags have become an increasingly common occurrence, noted Clarence Ditlow, executive director of The Center for Auto Safety. "[There have] been more air bag recalls in the last couple years than in the previous five," he said.

Read MoreCarmakers struggle with recall of deadly airbags

But the NHTSA advisory focuses specifically on air bags produced for a variety of automakers by the embattled Japanese mega-supplier Takata. Toyota has so far recalled 2.2 million vehicles equipped with Takata air bags, including 247,000 added to the list this week.

Late Wednesday, a Dow Jones report citing sources said that the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan is probing Takata for faulty airbags.

NHTSA's advisory covers those and vehicles sold by other makers, and its announcement is meant to help ensure consumers don't ignore recall notices that manufacturers have already sent out. The safety agency's data shows that only about three-quarters of motorists follow up by making repairs, and the figure declines as vehicles age, often because they've been traded in and new owners may not receive the warning letters.

The vehicles covered by the various Takata recalls date back as far as the 2000 model year, and it is unclear how many are still in use, but with the average American vehicle now lasting at least 11 years, it is likely to include a sizable share, according to industry experts.

Click here for a list of all the vehicles affected by the recall

The extent of the problem with the Takata air bags has only recently become clear, in part because their performance appears to deteriorate with age, especially if the vehicles are operated in areas with high humidity, according to the NHTSA. The issue has been linked to a manufacturing defect at two Takata plants in the U.S.

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Some of the recalls have been broad-based, involving all vehicles produced during a specific time period; others have been based on geography. Toyota, for example, is including some products specifically sold into areas like southern Florida, where humidity is especially high and the possibility of a Takata air bag failure might increase.

That approach has come under fire, however, from critics like safety expert Ditlow, who contends that in a highly mobile society, a vehicle sold into a dry region, such as New Mexico, might be traded in, moved through the used vehicle auction system and wind up in Miami.

Eric Thayer | Stringer | Getty Images

The Takata fiasco was compounded by an early miscount by NHTSA that initially excluded Ford and Subaru from its list. That and other revisions led to the sharp increase in vehicles covered by the advisory. But the situation was made yet worse when NHTSA's special recall database ran into problems, leaving many motorists unable to verify if they were on the list.

Charlie Wise, of York, Pennsylvania, knows his 2004 Honda Element has a faulty Takata air bag. But that doesn't help much, because he has been told by the local Honda dealer it may be weeks or months until the replacement part, the inflator that ignites in a crash, arrives at the service department. Honda has by far the most vehicles on the NHTSA list—more than 5 million.

"I don't like the situation. I'd like my wife's car to be fixed as quickly as possible, but that won't be happening for a while," Wise said. "I'm worried for my wife because she needs to drive her car."

Read MoreGM owners fail to get recalled cars fixed

Other motorists who want to check to see whether their vehicle is on the NHTSA list ran into problems when they went to safercar.gov/vinlookup at the agency's direction: The website wasn't working. As of Wednesday afternoon, the website still had a note to those trying to check their vehicle identification number that the function still wasn't working and to try individual manufacturers' websites instead.

Considering both the size of the Takata problem and the fact that there are a record number of recalls overall this year, many customers could wind up in a similar situation, industry analysts warned.

"We have a decent supply of inflators," said General Motors spokesman Alan Adler. But GM has nonetheless advised owners of some of its old Pontiac Vibe and Saab 9-2X models not to drive with anyone in the front passenger seat until the air bag inflator has been replaced.

American motorists aren't the only ones impacted by the Takata air bag defect. About 16 million vehicles worldwide have so far been recalled.

As automotive safety enforcement has ramped up in recent years, so has the number of recalls specifically related to air bags, to a total of about 16.5 million vehicles since 2008, according to a summary of federal data compiled by the Center for Auto Safety.

Industry observers suggest there should be no surprise that air bag recalls are on the rise. After all, there are more of the devices being used every year. There are frontal bags, side impact bags, rollover bags and knee bags. Several new GM SUVs even have air bags mounted between front seat occupants to keep them from banging heads in a collision.

"You knew air bags were here to stay when you had more air bags in a vehicle than cupholders," joked Ditlow.

But while he and other safety experts admit they're worried about the current recall trend, they also want consumers to understand that air bags are still an essential safety feature that, despite recent problems, still save many, many lives.

"The bigger picture from the research we've done over the years is that air bags are performing very well," stressed Russ Rader, a senior vice president with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Rader's own BMW is on the NHTSA recall list. He said he will get it repaired as soon as possible, adding that he is confident the technology could provide a critical cushion of safety if he's ever in a crash.

—With contributions from CNBC's Phil LeBeau