A defective airbag part has lead to a global recall of more than three million vehicles manufactured by Honda, Toyota, Nissan and General Motors. Additional automakers are expected to announce similar recalls soon. The recalls affect vehicles manufactured between 2000 and 2004.

Faulty canisters may explode

At issue in the recalls are small, propellant filled canisters manufactured by the Takata Corporation of Japan. These canisters are installed in millions of vehicles all over the world and are essential components in airbag systems.

When a car accident occurs, propellant housed in a small metal canister ignites, filling the airbag with gas and protecting the passenger. The canister is perforated with small holes designed to allow the gas to escape. When operating properly, the propellant burns at a specific rate. In the faulty canisters, however, the propellant burns too quickly and the holes in the canister are not big enough to allow the gas to escape. When this happens, the canister can explode and send shrapnel into a vehicle’s passenger area.

So far, there have been no reports of inadvertent ignition and explosion in vehicles with the faulty canisters. Instead, all reported problems have occurred in crashes.

Multiple automakers issue recalls

Honda has recalled 1.1 million cars, including 2001-2003 model Civics, 2002-2003 model CR-Vs and 2002 model Odyssey minivans. Though it has recalled millions of vehicles world-wide, Toyota recalled approximately 510,000 vehicles in the U.S. The models affected include the Corolla, Matrix and Lexus SC 430. Toyota believes that only a small number of their vehicles have the defective modules, but they must test all listed models to make sure. General Motors recalled approximately 55,000 2003 model year Pontiac Vibes for testing. Ford has not yet announced any recalls, but the company is currently researching whether it used any of the defective Takata components.

Automakers are likely to act quickly out of an abundance of caution, not only to prevent potential injuries to consumers, but also to avoid fines by U.S. regulators. In 2010, Toyota paid a total of $48.8 million in civil penalties after the company failed to notify the U.S. Department of Transportation of accelerator safety issues within the time period required by law.

Defective products are a safety hazard

Unfortunately, in their effort to increase sales, manufacturers sometimes distribute products that are defective, either due to poor design or faulty manufacturing techniques. If a person is hurt because of a negligently designed or manufactured product, the manufacturer may be liable for his injuries.