The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday formally demanded the Japanese auto supplier Takata Corp. declare that millions of vehicles sold with driver-side air bags nationwide are defective — the first step toward forcing the company to recall the vehicles.
Takata has until Dec. 2 to respond. If it refuses, the next step will be for NHTSA to issue an initial decision demanding a recall and to schedule a public hearing. If Takata refuses following the hearing, the agency would have to go to court to enforce the recall demand.
"NHTSA is issuing this recall request letter to notify you that the agency has tentatively concluded that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists on a national basis in the subject driver's side air bag inflators, and to demand that Takata recall the inflators," wrote Frank S. Borris, who heads NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation.
The agency warned it may begin proceedings to start fining Takata up to $7,000 per day per violation if it doesn't agree to recall the air bags.
NHTSA said the inflators pose an unreasonable risk of death or serious injury because they may shoot metal fragments at drivers and passengers. Since 2013, 10 automakers have recalled 7.8 million vehicles in the United States for Takata air bags that are linked to at least four deaths and 30 injuries in Hondas — mostly in high-humidity areas.
Takata spokesman Alby Berman said the company had no immediate comment.
The defective air bags have been linked to at least five deaths and 30 injuries in Honda vehicles.
NHTSA deputy chief David Friedman will testify at a Dec. 3 House hearing on the air bag recalls along with Takata, Honda, Toyota and BMW.
Takata said last week that a nationwide recall for driver-side air bags could put "lives at risk" because it could take inflators meant for high-humidity areas, and send them to other areas. Recalls have been largely limited to states like Florida so far.
Takata told the Senate last week it could take at least two years to produce enough parts to replace all the inflators.
"Takata must act now to quickly and responsibly recall these defective driver side airbags nationwide. Any further delay is unacceptable. Be assured that we will use all of our authority and resources to ensure that America's drivers and passengers are safe," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Last week, NHTSA asked Takata and five automakers — Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Mazda Motor Co. and BMW AG — to issue nationwide recalls for millions of vehicles with driver-side air bags. None have agreed to do so.
NHTSA cited in the letter a recent incident involving a driver's side air bag failure in North Carolina in a 2007 Ford Mustang that resulted in cuts and burns to the driver — outside the current regional recall area, along with five previous driver's side air bag ruptures.
It also cited a September 2013 incident when a Takata driver's side air bag inflator ruptured in a 2006 Chrysler Charger in Florida. The driver suffered cuts and burns. It also noted a Takata driver's side air bag inflator ruptured in a 2005 Mazda6 in Florida; the driver sustained injuries, including burns to the arms and face, and loss of hearing. The letter also noted a May 31 incident in California in which a Takata driver's side air bag inflator ruptured in a 2005 Honda Accord.
NHTSA's demand came a day after it sent a letter to Chrysler Group LLC, saying it must expand its recall of 371,000 vehicles announced in June for risk of exploding air bags to a broader geographic area — and must alert owners by Dec. 1.
In a letter to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne obtained by The Detroit News, NHTSA deputy chief David Friedman criticized the limited "geographic scope and the slow pace of the recall."
"Chrysler's delay in notifying consumers and taking other actions necessary to address the safety defect identified is unacceptable and exacerbates the risk to motorists' safety," Friedman wrote.
Chrysler has limited its recall to vehicles sold or registered in high-humidity areas of Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. NHTSA said the recall should also immediately include southern Georgia, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa and areas along the coast of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
The automaker so far has agreed to recall 371,000 2003-08 Dodge Ram pickups, 2004-08 Dodge Durangos, 2007-08 Chrysler Aspens, 2005-08 Chrysler 300s, 2005-08 Dodge Dakota pickups and 2006-07 Mitsubishi Raider pickups