U.S. demands faster action on air bag recalls

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The top U.S. auto safety regulator wrote to 10 major automakers and the Japanese air bag supplier Wednesday, urging faster action on recalls of 7.8 million vehicles for potentially defective air bags linked to at least four deaths.

David Friedman, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sent letters to air bag supplier Takata Corp., along with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp, Subaru, Mitsubishi and BMW. It urged them to move faster to fix faulty air bags.

“While decisive measures are being taken to address the safety threat, more can and should be done as soon as possible to prevent any further tragedies from occurring as a result of these defective air bags,” Friedman wrote. He asked if they will accept replacement parts from other suppliers.

NHTSA wants automakers to do more to get owners to get air bags fixed. Expanded service hours, free loaner vehicles and advertising are urged. The agency also wants details on testing of returned inflator parts in fixed vehicles.

Regulators are most concerned that prolonged exposure to high humidity — primarily in Florida and the Gulf states — can cause inflated air bags to send metal fragments flying, potentially killing or injuring occupants. Some in Congress want the recalls expanded nationwide immediately.

Last week, NHTSA sent an urgent bulletin asking owners to get vehicles fixed immediately. But most automakers don’t have enough replacement parts. And the recalls have had different levels of urgency on the part of automakers.

Friedman’s letter to Takata said a meeting is planned for Thursday between the agency and Takata.

“Further action by Takata is required to better understand the failures and further mitigate the safety risk,” Friedman wrote to Takata Vice President Kazuo Higuchi in Washington. “I am deeply troubled by this situation because of the potential risk for death and injury as well as the erosion of public confidence in a proven life-savings technology.”

“Production of replacement parts must not just be expedited, it must be prioritized,” Friedman wrote. Takata pledged to double its testing program, Friedman said.

Takata told The Detroit News on Tuesday that it was moving aggressively to ramp up production. In mid-September, the company told NHTSA it would only have produced about 1.47 million replacement air bags by February, citing shortages from its suppliers.

At least two deaths in Honda vehicles are linked to faulty Takata air bags, and two more deaths are under investigation, including that of a woman in Florida earlier this month.

Last week, Toyota Motor Corp. 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 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 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. It is offering loaner vehicles on a case-by-case basis.

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