Japanese air bag maker Takata Corp. and 10 automakers have recalled 14 million vehicles worldwide for a problem with both driver and passenger side air bags, including 8 million in the U.S.
The air bags can inflate with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and sending shards flying at drivers and passengers.
The recalls have been limited to areas of high humidity, such as along the Gulf Coast. But the exact locations covered vary by automaker.
This can be confusing for car owners, some of whom have written lawmakers to say they're afraid to drive their cars.
On Tuesday, Takata declined a U.S. government demand to add about 8 million cars to a recall of driver's side air bags by broadening it to all 50 states. At least five deaths and dozens of injuries worldwide have been linked to the problem.
Here are some questions and answers about the recalls:
Q: How can I find out if my car has been recalled?
A: Dozens of models made by BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota dating to the 2001 model year are covered. You should have received a recall notice from your automaker. Also, you can go to www.safercar.gov and key in your vehicle identification number, which normally is printed on your registration and stamped on the dashboard. That will tell you if your car is being recalled. You can also call your dealer. Honda is Takata's largest customer, and has so far recalled over 5 million vehicles in the U.S. alone
Q: Why are some of the recalls just in areas with high humidity?
A: Government investigators and Takata officials believe that prolonged exposure to moisture in the air makes the inflator chemical, ammonium nitrate, burn too fast, creating too much pressure. That can cause the metal inflator canisters to shatter, spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers. They're still conducting tests on inflators replaced by dealers to figure out what level of humidity causes the problem. Initially the recall areas were limited to Florida, Puerto Rico, areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, as well as Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii.
Q: I live outside the recall areas, but the humidity is still high. Is my car safe?
A: The short answer is no one is sure because the problem is still under investigation. This has some car owners confused and worried. Investigators think they have found a concentration of defective inflators inside the high-humidity zone. But there are still a lot of humid locations outside those areas. Takata says the cars are safe if they're outside the high-humidity area. It's difficult to tell if your car has a Takata air bag inflator. You can try asking your dealer, but even they may not know.
Q: Why doesn't the government just order a national recall of all Takata air bag inflators?
A: Safety regulators say two incidents outside of current recall zones involving driver's side air bags are cause for a national recall. Takata disagrees. That could mean civil fines and a court date for Takata. Regulators can go to court to force Takata to do a recall, but they have to hold a public hearing first.
Q: What's next?
A: Other automakers are likely to follow Honda's lead in doing a national driver's side recall. And the investigation will continue into passenger side problems. Takata could wind up being fined and face court action for defying the government's demand for the national recall.