Cheap and nasty airbags putting Aussies at risk
WARNING: Graphic content
SOME drivers on Australian roads are still at a safety risk due to dodgy airbags that are a "ticking time bomb".
Even in the most minor of fender benders, these cheap airbags can explode without warning, sending shards of metal at 300km/h into unsuspecting drivers and passengers, resulting in horrific injuries and even death.
The airbags, produced by a major automotive parts company called Takata, contain the volatile and unstable - yet cheap - chemical, ammonium nitrate. It is in no other airbags.
In a collision, it can cause an airbag to randomly explode in what engineers have described as "aggressive over-deployment".
Instead of savings the driver's life in a car cash, the airbag can end up injuring them or killing them.
Even worse is that Takata has been aware of the faulty airbags for decades.
As a part of a 60 Minutes investigation into the scandal, three United States whistleblowers spoke to the program about their efforts to warn Takata of the dangerous airbags.
Mark Lillie, a chemical engineer and explosives expert worked for Takata when they decision to use ammonium nitrate in the late 1990s, in a bid to produce a lower cost airbag and get a jump on their competitors. His warning fell on deaf ears.
"Ammonium nitrate is not appropriate for a high-precision explosion. Particularly for a high-precision explosive that needs to be stored for a long period of time," Mr Lille told 60 Minutes.
"And I made the prediction, I said then and there that, 'If we go forward with this someone would be killed.'
"We knew 20 years ago that this was a problem. We warned them 20 years ago, this was a problem."
Mr Lillie left his job with airbag makers, Takata Corporation in 2000, after he gave up trying to get someone to listen.
But the most frightening thing of all is that when Australian authorities became aware of the potentially life-threatening issues, they failed to act swiftly to save Aussie drivers.
The first Australian to fall victim to Takata's cheap production practices was a 22-year-old Darwin woman, who suffered catastrophic, life-altering injuries when her airbag exploded after a garden variety bingle in April 2017.
Her faulty airbag exploded, sending a shard of metal shooting through her sunglasses and into her brain.
"This [metal shard] struck the left part on the inside of the temple and then gone across the forebrain and lodged against the right side of her skull. That whole piece was surgically removed from her brain," Detective Sergeant Mike Ordelman, who was one of the first officers of the scene at the incident, told 60 Minutes.
The accident left the young woman blinded and brain damaged.
But, as the 60 Minutes investigation revealed, Australian regulators did nothing - despite the tragic incident following similar ones in the US, which prompted the US government to force carmakers to issue a compulsory recall to replace the faulty airbags in 2015.
The program uncovered information that shows while our various government departments and safety regulators were aware of concerns the voluntary recall was not adequate, they were slow to act.
Then, in July last year, a 58-year-old Sydney man died after a relatively minor collision when the airbag exploded and flung a piece of metal into his neck.
Finally, the Federal Government was forced to act. It ordered the consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, to investigate.
After investigating, in February this year, the ACCC made the voluntary recall compulsory, and told car manufacturers they'd face tough penalties if they didn't fix the airbags.
"The Department of Infrastructure was in charge of this issue. Unfortunately, it did take the death of Mr. Ngo in July 2017. Then a minister stepped in and asked the ACCC to get involved. We took it over from July 2017," ACCC Chairman Rod Sims told 60 Minutes.
But for Mr Lillie - and for the families affected by blatant lack of responsibility - the Australian government's response is too little, too late.
"Absolutely that is totally inappropriate and obviously the Australian authorities had to be aware of what was happening in the states," Mr Lillie said.
There are still around 12,000 airbags known as "alpha" airbags in certain older vehicles on Australian roads.
These cars should not be driven at all until their airbag has been replaced. Consumers should contact their car's manufacturer immediately.
But the majority of Takata airbags currently in cars do not pose an immediate safety risk.
Consumers are urged to check if their car is affected by visiting www.productsafety.gov.au or Google "Is my airbag safe" to see if their car is affected.