Washington — Federal regulators say an eighth U.S. fatality is likely linked to a defective Takata air bag that’s part of the largest-ever auto safety recall in U.S. history.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration learned of the crash last week when contacted by an attorney for the family of the victim — a minor who was driving a relative’s 2001 Honda Accord Coupe on July 22 near Pittsburgh, officials said.
The driver-side air bag deployed and ruptured, hospitalizing the driver for several days before he died, NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said on a call with reporters. The agency this week confirmed the death is likely related to a Takata defect but is still testing the vehicle, he said.
“This young person’s death is tragic and reflects why we’re working so hard to get these vehicles off the road,” Trowbridge said.
In a statement, Takata said that “heartfelt condolences go out to the driver’s family.”
“We are working in close collaboration with Honda and NHTSA to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding this tragic situation,” Takata spokesman Jared Levy said. “Takata’s No. 1 priority is the safety of the driving public.”
Honda said it has not yet had the opportunity to inspect the car, and is coordinating with representatives of the family, NHTSA and Takata to inspect it “as quickly as possible to evaluate if the Takata air bag inflator ruptured in this crash.
“Our thoughts and sincere sympathies are with the family,” Honda said.
The company said the vehicle was included in a February 2010 national recall campaign for the Takata driver-side air bag inflator.
Honda made “numerous” attempts to contact the previous owner from 2010 through 2012, but records indicate that the necessary recall repairs were not completed.
Honda says it mailed an additional recall notice to the current owner of the vehicle on July 21 — a day before the crash.
The death is the eighth in the U.S. and the ninth death worldwide linked to Takata air-bag defects. About 100 injuries are also linked to the problem, according to NHTSA.
The agency in November imposed a record-setting $200 million settlement on Takata Corp. over its handling of the recall after investigators found the Japanese air bag manufacturer had misled regulators since 2009 about the safety of air bag inflators that can rupture and send steel fragments flying.
The deal requires Takata, which has its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, to phase out the use of a compound in air bag inflators — ammonium nitrate — that has come under criticism and that a majority of its competitors have stopped using.
The nearly 19-million vehicle recall campaign impacts makes and models of several automakers including BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Daimler Trucks, Honda, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.
NHTSA said Wednesday it’s adding several more cars to the recall list: the 2005-08 Mazda 6, 2002-04 Honda CRV and 2005-08 Subaru Legacy and Outback.
The expansion was prompted by news that a passenger-side air bag in these models had ruptured during testing, Trowbridge said. Some of the affected vehicles are already under previous driver- or passenger-side recalls.
The agency is still analyzing how many vehicles are affected, estimating the expansion will add “a few hundred thousand” to the existing recall population, Trowbridge said.
The ruptures each occurred in vehicles that had spent time or were located in a high-humidity region, he said.
Honda said the expanded recall affects 127,000 inflators in 2003-04 CR-Vs not previously subject to a recall or safety-improvement campaign, although 78,000 of those had been included in existing passenger-side air bag recalls or other Honda campaigns.
Most of Takata’s exploding air bags have been found in older vehicles exposed to high humidity for long periods. Officials believe humid conditions cause the propellant to explode with too much force, and NHTSA wants vehicles from 2008 or older that spent significant time in high-humidity areas such as the Gulf Coast state repaired first.
As of Dec. 4, the agency says 34 percent of recalled driver-side air bags in high-humidity areas have been repaired, and nearly 32 percent of passenger-side air bags in high-humidity regions. The national recall completion rate is 27 percent for driver-side air bags and 26 percent for the passenger side.
The pace of recall repairs by manufacturers has more than doubled in recent weeks, with just over 950,000 recall repairs completed nationwide during the two-week period ending Dec. 4, compared to a similar period a month before.
NHTSA said last month that about 70 percent of replacement inflators installed during repairs are being provided by companies other than Takata.
The agency on Wednesday also said it has appointed attorney John D. Buretta as the independent monitor to oversee the massive Takata recall.
While paid by Takata, Buretta reports directly to NHTSA and will be responsible for reviewing and assessing Takata’s compliance with its November settlement with the government.
Buretta is a partner at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York and previously worked for 10 years at the Department of Justice, leaving in 2013 as the second-ranking official in the Criminal Division.