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House panel likely to hold air bag hearing

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely to hold a hearing before the end of the year on the recall of 7.8 million vehicles by 10 major automakers for potentially defective Takata air bag inflators.

“It’s likely we are going to have a hearing soon,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the panel. “We wrote some tough letters already.”

Toyota is one of the 10 major automakers impacted by the faulty Takata air bag inflators that could explode and cause metal fragments to hit drivers and passengers.

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing Thursday on the recalls since 2013 of 7.8 million vehicles in the United States from 10 major automakers for air bag inflators that could explode and cause metal fragments to hit drivers and passengers. The defect is linked to five deaths worldwide in Hondas — including four in the United States — and at least 30 injuries. A small number of injuries have been reported in other vehicles.

Upton said he is holding meetings later this week on whether to move forward with auto safety legislaton. “Stay tuned,” Upton said, who held two hearings on General Motors ignition switch recalls earlier this year. Asked if he plans any additional hearing on GM’s safety issues, Upton said he didn’t know yet. Officials say the House hearing could come in early December.

On Thursday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold the first hearing on Takata’s air bag recalls. It comes as many in Congress are pushing automakers to make their recalls national campaigns rather than limit them to high humidity areas like Florida and Hawaii.

The deputy chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and executives from Takata Corp., Honda Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and a victim of a Texas air bag deployment will testify Thursday before a Senate panel.

The Senate panel will hear from Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president for global quality assurance; NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman; Scott Kunselman, senior vice president for vehicle safety and regulatory compliance at Chrysler Group LLC; Rick Schostek, executive vice president at Honda North America; and Stephanie Erdman, who was badly injured in a September 2013 crash in a Honda Civic in Florida.

Most of the vehicles are regional recalls limited to high humidity areas, but members of Congress want to know why the recalls aren’t nationwide. Honda’s recalls include some warm-weather states that other automakers don’t include. NHTSA is also investigating whether the recall should be expanded nationally after opening its probe in June.

Last week, Takata said it has received a federal grand jury subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York. The company — which faces an investigation by NHTSA — said Thursday in a financial disclosure document that it faces a federal probe.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who will chair the hearing, said some some automakers are dragging their feet in making fixes. He also criticized NHTSA, saying last week the agency “has not been right upfront, forward-leading and aggressive to protect the public.”

Chrysler said last week it will start replacing air bag inflators on 371,000 vehicles next month in vehicles sold or registered in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after a report of a single non-life threatening injury in Florida in a 2006 Dodge Charger. Chrysler said its tests on inflators recovered from vehicles in Florida show they are working.

All of the deaths have taken place in Honda vehicles. Honda told NHTSA that it will replace air bag inflators from outside the regional recall areas if consumers complain.

Toyota North America CEO James Lentz noted the company has recalled 877,000 cars due to the passenger airbag inflator issue since April 2013, including a recent subset of 247,000 in high-humidity areas, adding “urgency to the original recall.”

Dealers, he said, have deactivated an unknown number of passenger air bags in high-humidity areas, asking drivers to not allow passengers to sit in the seat until fixed. If customers are uneasy about deactivating the air bag, Toyota will provide a loaner car.

“I think we may have been the most aggressive with doing that of any of the manufacturers,” he said.

Detroit News Staff Reporter Mike Wayland contributed to this report.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com