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Frustrated Toyota customer has waited a year for airbag fix

An 85-year-old woman from Abbotsford, B.C., is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to put friends or family in her passenger seat for a year, after receiving a recall notice warning an airbag in her car could shoot shrapnel, causing "injury or death."

Toyota Canada tells customer it has 'no date' for replacing defective airbag

Barb Fleming, seen here with CBC reporter Erica Johnson, feels like she's driving Miss Daisy, because an airbag recall has forced passengers into the back seat. (Doug Trent/CBC)


  • As a result of our Go Public investigation, Barb Fleming will finally receive an airbag.

An Abbotsford, B.C., senior citizen is frustrated by a year-long wait to get her Toyota Corolla repaired, with no estimated date for a fix in sight.

Barb Fleming's vehicle is part of the worldwide recall of defective Takata airbags that first started to unfold three years ago.  

It's the biggest recall for a safety defect in automotive history, and the latest numbers show it affects more than 100 million airbags installed in vehicles manufactured by 14 major auto companies.

Fleming says the defective airbags are 'scary' and that she doesn't want one of her friends getting hurt. (Doug Trent/CBC)

Approximately 4.3 million airbags in Canada are affected.

Last July, Fleming received a recall notice in the mail from Toyota Canada, warning her not to let people ride next to her in the front, because a defective passenger seat airbag could rupture and shoot metal shrapnel, resulting "in injury or death to vehicle occupants."

Worldwide, 11 people have been killed by the airbags, and more than 150 injured.

"It's scary," says Fleming. "I don't want one of my friends getting hurt. Or one of my family."

'I feel like I'm driving Miss Daisy'

Since receiving the recall notice, Fleming has been waiting for a second notice from her automaker, informing her she can get her vehicle repaired.

Millions of Takata airbags are defective, shooting shrapnel that could maim or kill. (File)

The 85-year-old Fleming says many of her friends have stopped driving, or don't drive at night, and rely on her for transportation.

This recall has forced her to tell friends and family to sit in the back seat.

"I feel like I'm driving Miss Daisy,'" says Fleming, trying to be lighthearted about what is actually a huge inconvenience.

"It makes me not want to drive my car," she says. "This is really affecting my life."

Toyota still has no time frame for fix

After calling her Abbotsford Toyota dealership several times in the past year, Fleming emailed Toyota Canada recently to ask when her airbag would be replaced.

The company wrote back saying it is "currently finalizing the list of affected vehicles" and had no "estimated time frame ... at this time."

"It's ridiculous," says Fleming. "Almost a year to make a list? That's enough time to figure it out."

Toyota Canada says that replacement airbags have 'started rolling out' in Canada, but it could not give Fleming a date to fix her car. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

When Go Public asked Toyota Canada when Fleming could expect the repair, the company told CBC that replacement airbags have started rolling out in Canada, but that "additional details, unfortunately cannot be shared at this time."

The company did not offer Fleming a replacement vehicle, although in the U.S., Toyota has provided some customers with that service.

Transport Canada lacks power

Transport Canada has no authority to force automakers to give customers an estimated time frame for repairs.

Proposed legislation currently in the Senate will require manufacturers to provide an estimated repair time for defects. 

"What we would have is the ability to require them to let us know the time frame," says Kim Benjamin, director general of motor vehicle safety for Transport Canada.

"And if, in assessing their data, we don't think it's the appropriate time frame, then we could charge them."

Kim Benjamin, director general of motor vehicle safety for Transport Canada, says the agency can't order time frames for auto repairs. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

Benjamin says the risk of harm from the defective Takata airbags is relatively low in Canada, pointing out that the problems seem to occur in hot, humid areas like the southeastern United States.

Automakers have divided North America into three categories of risk — A, B and C. Canada is deemed to be in category C, with the lowest risk.

"If that's the case, why did Toyota urge me not to put a passenger in the front seat?" says Fleming. "Now I can't do that, knowing I've been warned. I don't feel good about that."

Since Transport Canada can't hurry carmakers along, Benjamin suggests Fleming — and other frustrated drivers — become squeaky wheels with their manufacturers.

"It's the manufacturer that is responsible for conducting the repair, as well as scheduling the repair. I would keep the focus back on the manufacturer to do it in a timely manner."

Other automakers keep mum

Go Public asked other major automakers affected by the Takata airbag recall whether they had started replacing the faulty devices in Canada.

Most refused to say how many of their vehicles are affected, or discuss plans to replace the potentially dangerous airbags.  

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was the most forthcoming, saying it had 400,000 airbags affected in Canada, and that one-third had been brought in for service and fixed.

The company says it has plenty of replacement airbags on hand, and is urging customers to bring in their vehicles if they are on the recall list.

The automaker is also offering a free rental program for affected customers.

Barb Fleming says it would be nice to have a rental vehicle, but mostly she wants a new airbag for the car she bought new in 2007 and has lovingly maintained.

"I'm an old bag, who wants an airbag!" she says in exasperation.

Transport Canada says of the four million airbags affected in Canada, 630,000 (or 14.7 per cent) have been replaced.

Consumer protection legislation

Critics say Canadians affected by the recall are being poorly served by Transport Canada, which administers the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

"It's a shell of a safety act, because it doesn't have any enforcement powers," says consumer advocate and author of the Lemon-Aid car guide series, Phil Edmonston.

"It doesn't have any huge fines. It doesn't have any subpoenas. And every time they think there's a problem with a car, they have to go to court to get that car recalled, and that goes on for years."

Consumer advocate Phil Edmonston told Transportation Minister Marc Garneau that changes to legislation are 'not rocket science.' (CBC )

After watching the Takata airbag situation unfold last year, Edmonston wrote a letter to Transportation Minister Marc Garneau, urging him to strengthen Transport Canada's powers when it comes to recalls.

"I said, 'Look, Minister Garneau. You're an astronaut. You wouldn't fly a space shuttle with Takata airbags. This is not rocket science.'"

Last month, the federal government introduced a bill that would give Transport Canada the authority to issue a recall. Only car manufacturers currently have that ability.

It would also require car companies to conduct the remedy free of charge for the consumer, and would prevent new vehicles from being sold in Canada until they're repaired.

"This is a monumental piece of legislation," says Edmonston. "I don't know of any other consumer law that is going to have so many ramifications in people's lives."

Airbag waiting game

Takata has said it can produce about one million airbags a month.

Given that 100 million airbags are needed, customers who aren't deemed "high priority" could be waiting years before their cars are fixed.

The day after Fleming spoke to Go Public, she had an appointment to play cards with a group of friends and give someone a ride.

"I'll tell her, once again, to sit in the back," says Fleming, with a hint of resignation. "Maybe I should buy myself a chauffeur's cap."

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  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said proposed legislation currently in the Senate wouldn't grant the power to force automakers to give customers an estimated timeframe for repairs. In fact, the new legislation would require it.
    Jun 21, 2016 3:37 PM PT

About the Author

Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda