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Are Motorists Paying Attention To The Takata Air Bag Recall?

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The largest consumer recall in American history is underway. Nearly 34 million American drivers are supposed to be replacing their airbags, though most drivers have been pretty slack about responding to auto recalls in the past. NPR's Jason Margolis has more.

JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Here's how it's supposed to work. You get a notice in the mail from your carmaker. You bring your vehicle in for service. They have the replacement part, and 30 to 60 minutes later, you're done. For many, it's been that easy. Not so for retired schoolteacher Kathy Mazzola in Ann Arbor. She drives a 2004 Honda Accord, which is on the list of cars that might need replacement airbags. She needs to take her car in - she thinks.

KATHY MAZZOLA: I'm concerned that nobody's contacted me 'cause I was originally from Kalamazoo, and we bought this car in Battle Creek, and I don't know if they've lost track of my address.

MARGOLIS: You can't blame Mazzola for being confused and concerned. In December, Honda said it was recalling 5.4 million vehicles, the most of any carmaker in the U.S. Mazzola has been in a head-on collision before and says she doesn't feel comfortable in her Honda, which may have faulty airbags manufactured by the Japanese company Takata.

MAZZOLA: In fact, I'm thinking of just getting another car, but the problem is which car to get since so many of the American cars do use Takata.

MARGOLIS: Besides Honda, 10 other automakers are playing catch-up. Last week, Takata acknowledged that airbags put in nearly 17 million additional American vehicles were potentially defective. Mazzola could have checked her VIN, the vehicle ID number, at the website safercar.gov. She didn't know about the site, though. I checked for her. It took 30 seconds to see that her car needs a repair. With past recalls, many Americans haven't bothered.

HEATHER HUNTER: 1 in 4 recalled vehicles are never fixed.

MARGOLIS: Heather Hunter is with AAA. She says it's too early to know if more drivers will pay attention to this recall. Aaron Bragman with cars.com understands why somebody might not rush to check.

AARON BRAGMAN: It's recall fatigue, I think. People are hearing about recalls every day, it seems to be, from an automaker somewhere. It didn't use to be like this. But, you know, recalls mean that a problem has been found and that something has been put in place to try and address it, and it is worth paying attention to.

MARGOLIS: Six deaths have been linked to faulty airbags and more than a hundred injuries. Statistically, that's very small. Two hundred Americans are killed annually in collisions with deer. Still, airbags can be fixed, that is if parts are available. That's an issue, says Heather Hunter with AAA.

HUNTER: So estimates are that it's going to take about two years to complete the recalls.

MARGOLIS: I called about 10 dealerships nationwide - mostly Honda - to see how they were doing to keep up with demand for replacement parts. None called me back or would speak with me. James Norris did.

JAMES NORRIS: I've been with Toyota off and on for 41 years.

MARGOLIS: He's the service manager at the Toyota dealership in Ann Arbor where I take my car. He says some of his customers get a little irritable that they have to come see him

NORRIS: Who wants to go to the dentist? But you got to. You know, so if there's a recall on your car - any manufacturer - you got to. You got to get it done.

MARGOLIS: At least he has replacement parts now. A few months ago, when the recall began, he didn't. That can make customers more than just a little irritable. Jason Margolis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.