More than 30 million US drivers don’t know if they’re at risk from a rare but dangerous airbag blast

The ARC Automotive manufacturing plant as seen in 2015 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File, File)

DETROIT — More than 33 million people in the United States are driving vehicles that contain a potentially deadly threat: Airbag inflators that in rare cases can explode in a collision and spew shrapnel.

Few of them know it.

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And because of a dispute between federal safety regulators and an airbag parts manufacturer, they aren’t likely to find out anytime soon.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is demanding that the manufacturer, ARC Automotive of Knoxville, Tennessee, recall 67 million inflators that could explode with such force as to blow apart a metal canister and expel shrapnel. But ARC is refusing to do so, setting up a possible court fight with the agency.

NHTSA argues that the recall is justified because two people have been killed in the United States and Canada and at least seven others have been injured by ARC’s inflators. The explosions, which first occurred in 2009, have continued as recently as this year.

NHTSA tentatively concluded, after an investigation that has lasted for eight years, that the inflators are defective. The agency’s documents show that the inflators date from at least the 2002 model year to January 2018, when ARC installed equipment on its manufacturing lines that could detect potential safety problems.

One of those who died was Marlene Beaudoin, a 40-year-old mother of 10 from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who was struck by metal fragments when her 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV was involved in a minor crash in 2021.

ARC maintains that no safety defect exists, that NHTSA’s demand is based on a hypothesis rather than technical conclusions and that the agency has no authority to order a parts manufacturer to carry out recalls, which ARC contends are the responsibility of automakers.

In a letter to NHTSA, ARC said no automaker has found a defect common to all 67 million inflators, and no root cause has been identified in the inflator ruptures.

The next step is for NHTSA to issue a final ruling on whether the inflators are defective, then hold a public hearing. It potentially could take ARC to court to seek a recall order.

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