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."
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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