As professional baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It's deja-vu all over again.”
Recently, a recall was issued for millions of vehicles from over a dozen different major car makers, due to faulty airbags that have caused injury and (in five cases and counting) death. The air bags in question were manufactured by a Japanese company known as Takata, one of only four manufacturers in the world that produces such devices. Allegedly, the problem is due to the use of a cheap propellant that causes the metal inflator housing to weaken in warm, humid environmental conditions. These airbags malfunction during deployment (and in some cases, have deployed without warning), ejecting metal shards into the driver's face and upper body.
It's not the first time Takata has gotten in trouble over a defective safety device. Between 1986 and 1991, nearly 9 million vehicles from 11 different auto makers were equipped with safety belts manufactured by Takata – a company that, ironically, first developed the concept back in the 1950s. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA received a large number of complaints that seat belts were either failing to latch properly or releasing unexpectedly during collisions.
It's worth noting that there are a couple of striking parallels between that recall and the present situation with the airbags. Back then, several Japanese manufacturers believed that the seat belt failures were caused by improper use and abuse on the part of car owners. It later came to light that the problem lie in the buckles themselves, made of a type of plastic known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS – a much less expensive alternative to metal. ABS plastic has an unfortunate tendency to become brittle after extended exposure to sunlight. Finally, it turned out that the Honda Motor Company and Takata were had been aware of the problem for at least five years prior to the recall – yet failed to report the situation to the NHTSA or take any meaningful action to protect consumers.
If this sort of corporate behavior sounds familiar, it is no surprise. Initially, Takata and Honda dismissed the airbag incidents as “anomalies.” It has now been discovered that Takata replaced its normal, more expensive propellant with a cheaper, less-reliable substitute. Finally, whistleblower testimony claims that Takata and Honda were aware of the problem at least four years before any action was taken.
In criminal cases (and Takata may yet face criminal charges, and certainly are facing civil lawsuits), a human suspect's record may be taken into consideration if it shows a pattern of behavior. Though corporations now claim human rights, past abuses and behaviors do not necessarily impact a present case.
Perhaps it's time they did.