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Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will take the unprecedented step of launching an effort to assert broad oversight over 11 major automakers to speed the massive recall of 33.8 million vehicles equipped with defective, possibly deadly, Takata air bags.

NHTSA said Thursday it intends to use its authority under a 2000 federal law called the TREAD Act for the first time to oversee what will be the largest auto recall in U.S. history. The federal agency could order additional production of replacement parts by other suppliers, decide how the parts are used and where, and exercise broad authority over the callback.

It will use this pathway in part because the 11 automakers whose cars have the affected Takata air bags have separate recall programs that create what NHTSA calls “a patchwork solution.” The agency believes separate recalls may not adequately address the safety risks of the exploding air bags within a reasonable time.

It likely will take NHTSA months before it announces a final order on how it intends to oversee the recalls. But it has never used the sweeping authority and could face legal challenges.

On Tuesday, Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. agreed under pressure to declare 33.8 million vehicles defective, with air bags that can deploy with too much force, causing inflators to explode and throw shrapnel at drivers and passengers. The problem is linked to at least six deaths and 100 injuries.

Takata’s declaration will lead in coming days to automakers’ recall of 17 million vehicles, in addition to the 17 million already recalled. The recall of almost 34 million vehicles covers more than 13 percent of all cars and trucks on the roads in the U.S. today.

It will be at least days — if not longer — until the makes and models of the additional cars and trucks are identified. And it could be months or longer before owners learn when they can schedule service to get repairs.

The delay is causing considerable confusion among auto owners who have jammed NHTSA’s website (safercar.gov), which has sustained sporadic outages.

On Wednesday, the website processed 987,000 searches of vehicle identification numbers to see if vehicles had open recalls — a record, and about 100 times more than a normal day. NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said the agency had boosted capacity and the site is working better.

Seeking public comment

In seeking the broad oversight, NHTSA said it is considering issuing an “order to ‘accelerate’ all applicable recall remedy programs, which could include, but not be limited to, provisions regarding sourcing, production, allocation, delivery, installation and adequacy of the remedy.”

A final decision on how and if it will use that authority is still months away. If NHTSA does use the authority, it could be a precedent for more government involvement in complex, multi-automaker recalls. But auto industry officials think because the recalls are so massive it may require an unprecedented government response.

The announcement from NHTSA is the first time the agency has said it planning to use authority under the TREAD Act passed by Congress in 2000 after the recall of millions of tires, linked to 270 deaths, on Ford Explorer SUVs.

Because NHTSA has never asserted itself under the law, it plans to seek public comment on the scope of its authority. It said it is looking for guidance on how automakers should comply, whether the agency should order replacement parts for manufacturers — and whether replacement parts should first go to certain vehicles or regions. Most air-bag explosions to date have been in hot, humid states.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said Congress needs answers.

“Everyone involved, from Takata to NHTSA to the manufacturers, needs to buckle down and figure out what triggers the air-bag explosions. I wrote the TREAD Act because on auto safety, we need to identify the cause in order to find the right solution. We can do our part to hold their feet to the fire, and we will,” Upton said.

In a four-page notice Thursday, NHTSA said that if Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx determines an automaker’s remedy program is unlikely to be completed within a reasonable time, he may require the manufacturer to “accelerate” repairs. House and Senate committees are getting briefings on the issue, and the House Energy and Commerce panel is likely to hold a new hearing on Takata’s air bag woes as early as next month amid intense public interest, The Detroit News learned. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit on Wednesday confirmed it is taking a leading role in the criminal investigation into the recalls.

Doing ‘the right thing’

Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook said the agency is doing “the right thing. This has to be a team effort,” she said.

The agency clearly has an urgent need to act. “People are scared to death and they don’t know what to do,” Claybrook said. “The government does have a huge problem here and it should take over the process — whether it has the capacity to do so is another question.”

She believes NHTSA is underfunded and understaffed. The White House has called for tripling NHTSA’s defect investigation budget and doubling its staffing, but Congress has shown little interest.

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, an auto safety advocacy group, said it is still unclear how the agency will be able to take control of the recall process. But he said, “NHTSA (officials) will be looking over their shoulder” to work to keep the recall on track.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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