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Fixes For Takata Air Bags Can Take Months. What To Drive In The Meantime?

LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Takata Corp. air bag recall has become so massive that vehicle owners might wait months for repairs, which leaves many struggling to figure out how to get around in the meantime.

Dealerships are paying for rental cars, but some need to be pushed into offering them, customers complain. And drivers under age 25 or with weak insurance coverage or credit say they are encountering snags when they get to the rental counter.

As the largest automotive recall in U.S. history, the Takata air bag problem is one that owners can't ignore. Takata air bag inflaters in 28.8 million cars can propel metal shrapnel into drivers and passengers. Ten people in the U.S. have died from such explosions and more than 100 have been injured.

The recall may expand by 85 million cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles if Takata can't prove that the inflaters in those cars are safe, regulators said last week. Vehicles produced for model years 2000 through 2015 by 16 different automotive brands are among those affected by the initial recalls and the potential expansion.

San Fernando Valley writer Amanda Biers-Melcher contacted her Honda dealership after receiving a notice last month that her 2012 Fit was part of the Takata recall. Biers-Melcher said she briefly thought about borrowing her mother's seldom-used Saab until she found that it, too, had faulty Takata air bags.

Biers-Melcher said she was stunned when a dealership employee told her she could keep driving her car.

"The letter I got said I could be killed driving it, so that wasn't happening," she said. Biers-Melcher said she called up some of her old New York City feistiness and eventually got a referral to a rental car agency, but the process left her upset.

"The first letter about this problem arrived the Friday before Easter," she said. "Why did it take so long to tell us? They should be pro-actively reaching out to customers and making this as easy as possible."

Walnut Creek resident Steve Elster said his 16-year-old son, Eli, was denied a rental car even though the family's 2012 Honda Fit, which the son drives, was on the recall list. Rental car companies often won't rent to drivers under age 25, or do so with special surcharges.

Elster said he tried out several proposals, including a loaner for his son from the dealership's inventory, but got nowhere.

"It's very frustrating," Elster said, "we bought a car. We are entitled to a car without a defective air bag and it's incumbent upon Honda to fix the problem and make sure that my son has a safe car to drive."

American Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the company's dealers are authorized to provide loaners cars to teen drivers, but only to the registered owners of the recalled vehicles. Elster's son wasn't the registered owner of the problem Fit.

After much negotiating, the Elsters were able to rent an SUV that only the parents are allowed to drive, and Eli will borrow his mother's beloved, non-recalled Rav4.

Still other drivers have complained that they are required by rental car companies to put down a security deposit, which comes directly out of their bank accounts if they use debit cards; people with low credit limits might run into difficulties with a chunk of that amount tied up by the rental car company.

Many owners also are griping about being pressured to pay for insurance if their own policies don't cover damage to rental cars.

Consumer advocates have watched the still-developing Takata recall with growing and widespread dissatisfaction.

Jamie Court, president of Santa Monica based Consumer Watchdog, said the recall "is a disgrace for the automakers and for the U.S. government."

Car manufacturers and their dealers "should absolutely adopt standards to make getting a loaner or a rental as easy as possible," Court said.

Then there are drivers who have other complaints about the experience: Some luxury car owners are irate over getting more-pedestrian rental vehicles.

Tatianna Klein of Miami took to Twitter to vent about getting a Kia loaner car to fill in for her BMW while she waits for an air bag replacement.

"They offered me a Kia loaner. RU kidding me?" Klein tweeted. "I pay monthly for a BMW, not a Kia!"

The severity of the parts shortage depends on a driver's car and location.

"Parts to repair your vehicle are not currently available," said one typical letter, this one from General Motors to a Saab owner. Federal regulators have set a schedule for completion of air bag replacements ranging from Dec. 31 of this year to Dec. 31, 2019.

Moreover, regulators have set up a complicated pecking order on who gets their air bags replaced first.

The four priority groups are based on the vehicle's age, bag failure rate and the amount of time it has spent in "areas of high absolute humidity." High humidity makes the air bags more likely to fail in a potentially deadly way.

That means a New Orleans resident driving a rusted 2003 Pontiac Vibe has a higher priority on the list than a late model BMW luxury car owner in Southern California.

Those at "Priority 4," or the bottom end of the list, may have more reasons than most to be irked. Their air bags were supposedly already fixed, but with more defective parts. Those cars aren't required to be fixed until the end of 2019.

Twitter: @RonWLATimes