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Toyota issues do-not-drive order for some older cars over defective airbags

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, to news that Toyota has issued a do-not-drive order for some older Corollas and RAV4s. The advisory has lots of words in all caps - words like urgent, serious injury and death. And there is good reason for these words, as NPR's Camila Domonoske is here to explain. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, tell me more. What is this do-not-drive order about?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it's the latest in the Takata air bag saga. So starting decades ago, Takata, this company, manufactured air bag inflators that turned out to be extremely dangerous. These air bags didn't just inflate. They would explode, sending metal shrapnel through the car, which is exactly as bad as it sounds and has caused injuries and deaths. And it sparked this enormous recall - tens of millions of vehicles, a whole bunch of brands. For years, regulators and companies have been trying to get all these vehicles fixed.

So this is not a new recall from Toyota. This is Toyota trying to draw attention to this existing recall. And it is not just one company. There are lots of vehicles where nobody's brought them in for the fix yet, so folks are still driving around with these dangerous air bags.

KELLY: OK. And you said the existing recall was tens of millions of vehicles. Is that how many we're talking about for this latest warning?

DOMONOSKE: Well, tens of millions of vehicles were recalled. A lot of them have been fixed. But millions still have not been fixed, right? So that's a problem in itself. It's a potentially deadly defect. The fix for it is totally free. Then, this do-not-drive order, it's for a subset of those vehicles that are extra dangerous. So Toyota's new order - it's about 50,000 vehicles. But there are other vehicles that are already under a do-not-drive order - BMWs, Hondas, Dodges. Partly, that's because, when they're not fixed, these air bags get more dangerous the older they get. Once they're fixed, they're fine. And again, that fix - it is totally free.

KELLY: My question - if this has been going on for years, if we've known for years, why have these vehicles not been fixed already?

DOMONOSKE: Owners might not know. With a new vehicle, you go into the dealership for routine maintenance, and they'll definitely flag this kind of stuff. With an older vehicle that's not under warranty, you're probably not going to the dealership. Companies have sent letters out, but maybe people moved or didn't pay attention to a letter. These older used vehicles have changed hands a whole bunch of times, so maybe they don't know. Maybe people know, but it's hard to get to a dealership, or they just can't do without a car for as long as it would take for a repair. Erin Witte is with the Consumer Federation of America.

ERIN WITTE: Part of the problem is that we're putting this burden on consumers to make sure that their cars get fixed, and that's the real issue.

DOMONOSKE: Now, some states are actually considering laws to require these recalls to be fixed - any safety recall to be fixed - or a vehicle can't be registered. Witte says that would actually be even worse because it takes that burden and makes it punitive in a way that mostly hurts low-income drivers with these older cars. It creates the risk of traffic stops for unregistered vehicles, which has extra risks for people of color. Her group wants to require used car dealers to fix safety recalls before they sell a used car. Right now, no federal law requires that. That would catch some of these vehicles when they're sold. But legislation to require that hasn't gone anywhere.

KELLY: OK. And for those of us driving around, what should drivers do?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. If you drive any car - older Toyota or not - you should check for recalls regularly. There's an app called Safer Car from the government. Or you can go to nhtsa.gov/recalls. And if there's a recall, you know, get the fix, right? In this case, with these air bags, Toyota says dealers can help with the inconvenience. They might bring a mobile repair to your house. They might pick up the car from where you live. And, again, it's free to get this fixed.

KELLY: That is the takeaway. It's free. Let's get it done. NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG PUN SONG, "STILL NOT A PLAYER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.