House committee to review air bag recalls

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The House Energy and Commerce is reviewing the recall of at least 7.8 million vehicles since 2013 with faulty air bags that could explode and send shrapnel into passengers.

At least two deaths in Honda vehicles are linked to faulty Takata Corp. air bags and two more deaths are under investigation, including the death of a woman in Florida earlier this month. NHTSA is most concerned about air bags in high humidity states and many of the recalls have been regional recalls in the warmest areas of the country.

Charlotte Baker, a committee spokeswoman, said the staff “has requested a briefing with NHTSA on the status of the Takata recalls and the agency's investigation, and also plans to meet with auto manufacturers to discuss supplier issues.”

Late Tuesday, NHTSA said it was expanding its urgent warning for owners to get vehicles repaired to 7.8 million vehicles at 10 major automakers — up from 4.7 million at six automakers that it had announced Monday.

The committee has spent much of the last year reviewing General Motors handling of ignition switch defects in 2.6 million older recalled Cobalt, Ion and other cars linked to 29 deaths. The committee held two hearings and its chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has been considering introducing auto safety reform legislation, while Democrats in the House and Senate have already introduced legislation.

NHTSA’s website is still having problems — which began Monday — but agency officials say they don’t think the problem is the result of too many visitors. Late Tuesday, NHTSA put out a release saying the expanded urgent warning covered 6.1 million vehicles. After The Detroit News pointed out the numbers listed in the release added up to 7.8 million, the agency acknowledged the mistake and corrected its statement just after midnight Wednesday.

NHTSA’s initial release on Monday also erroneously included GM vehicles from 2002-03 that didn’t have Takata air bags — apparently taken from an unrelated earlier air bag recall involving parts made by another company. NHTSA doesn’t currently have a tally of how many GM vehicles are covered by the warning, but said it applies to the 2003-05 Pontiac Vibe and Saab 9-2X.

Toyota Motor Corp. on Monday announced a new recall of 247,000 vehicles in high humidity areas — including 28,000 cars that hadn’t previously been recalled — and urgently warned motorists to take their vehicles into dealerships to get the air bags replaced. If they are not available, dealers will deactivate the passenger side air bag and hang a sign warning passengers not to sit in the front seat until it is repaired. Toyota’s letter going to motorists warns them the automaker considers the vehicles not safe to drive if motorists ignore the recall. Toyota also assembled about 10,000 Pontiac Vibes that are being recalled by GM.

Other automakers don’t have enough parts yet — and haven’t taken the same stance.

“We are customizing Toyota’s customer letters and will send overnight letters to certain owners of 2003-2005 Pontiac Vibes in the high humidity areas that NHTSA has identified as being susceptible to the defective Takata air bag inflators. This includes 9,940 Vibes but we are still working the numbers based on additional areas that Toyota identified in its expanded recall on Monday,” GM said.

Honda — which is a minority owner of Takata and accounts for 5.1 million of 7.8 million vehicles — includes vehicles in some warm weather states that other automakers don’t cover. But Honda is not taking the same stance of disconnections that Toyota is.