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This week's nationwide recall by federal safety regulators on vehicles that contain air bags by the Japanese supplier Takata has consumers on high alert as they try to understand how a safety restraint system that is supposed to protect them could cause bodily harm.
More than 14 million vehicles from 11 automakers have been recalled worldwide since 2008 over concerns about the Takata-made air bags, including Ford, Honda, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW, mostly from models made in 2008 or earlier. Today a Senate committee hearing will take place, with representatives of Takata, Honda and Chrysler set to appear.
The recall comes after a long series of ruptured air bags injured drivers and passengers in several states, especially those in humid regions.
In some cases, drivers died after a Takata air bag inflater ruptured and sprayed metal shrapnel into the car. Regulators are asking for more information on the propellant being used in Takata air bags, to find out if ammonium nitrate—a common compound used in fertilizer—is one of them. The concern is that exposure to moisture in humid regions can cause the propellant to degrade. This can make it burn too strongly when the air bag is deployed, rupturing the inflater and sending metal fragments into an automobile's interior.
Air bags are controlled by the laws of motion and are activated and fired through a carefully controlled explosion. They are triggered by high velocity and open up at more than 200 miles per hour—much faster than a car crash.
These restraint systems are designed to help seat belts protect passengers. Here's the mechanics of how they work.
Many newer vehicles may contain multiple air bag modules in various side and frontal locations, and sensors may deploy one or more air bags in an impact zone, based on the severity of impact. But air bags typically are designed to inflate in moderate to severe frontal crashes.
There are a lot of people credited with inventing air bags. But in the U.S., John W. Hetrick of Newport, Pennsylvania, came up with the idea after an accident swerved his car off the road, almost throwing his daughter through the windshield in 1952. He was granted a patent for the product on Aug. 18, 1953. Many other inventors have built on the idea since then, developing various ways to trigger the explosion of gas inside an air bag just before the impact of a crash.