Senators urge criminal probe into Takata air bags

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Three senators asked the Justice Department on Friday to investigate a report that Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata destroyed evidence and data from test results in 2004 that showed steel inflators cracked in two of the 50 air bags tested — a condition that can lead to air bag failure. Federal investigators asked former employees to come forward.

U.S. Sens Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, on Friday called on the U.S. Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation of Takata after The New York Times reported that in 2004, the Japanese company destroyed air bags and data from test results that had raised concerns with engineers.

The Times reported that after Takata received a report a decade ago that one of its air bags failed and sent metal shrapnel flying at a driver, Takata conducted secret tests at its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills after normal work hours, and on weekends and holidays. According to the report, Takata ordered lab technicians to delete testing results from computers and destroy the faulty inflators. The company did not alert federal safety regulators about the problem.

Takata spokesperson Alby Berman said in a statement that the New York Times story allegations “are fundamentally inaccurate,” but said the company wouldn’t comment in detail on anonymous allegations.

She said the company “takes very seriously the accusations made in this article, and we are cooperating and participating fully with the government investigation now underway.”

The company’s shares fell 7.3 percent in trading in Japan on Friday.

“Reports that Takata concealed and destroyed test results revealing fatal air bag defects, along with other evidence that the company was aware of these deadly problems, clearly require a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice,” Blumenthal and Markey said,.

“If the reports are true, the company must be held accountable for the horrific deaths and injuries that its wrongdoing caused. These allegations are credible and shocking — plainly warranting a prompt and aggressive criminal probe.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating whether recalls involving Takata air bag inflator ruptures linked to four deaths in Hondas since 2008 should be expanded. The agency is looking at the seven recalls related to Takata air bags since 2008, some covering manufacturing problems at Takata and more recent ones connected to long-term exposure to consistently high temperatures and humidity. More than 16 million vehicles worldwide have been recalled by 11 automakers since 2008.

“NHTSA is actively investigating Honda for its early warning reporting and compelling both Honda and Takata to produce documents and answer questions, under oath. We will leave no stone unturned as we review everything we have and new information we receive in the future,” the agency said in a statement.

The agency encouraged current and former employees with information to contact NHTSA directly.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who held hearings into General Motors Co.’s delayed ignition switch recall linked to at least 30 deaths, said, “If these reports are true, they show a company more concerned with profits than the lives of consumers — a company that needs to be held fully accountable, not just with financial penalties, but also with criminal charges.”

Earlier this week, NHTSA ordered Honda Motor Co. to answer questions under oath about the company’s recall of 5.1 million vehicles for defective Takata air bags.

NHTSA wants all internal documents about air bag failures along with Honda communications with Takata and other air bag suppliers. Late Thursday, Honda converted a safety campaign to a formal recall involving vehicles with Takata air bags, but didn’t give a precise number of vehicles covered.

NHTSA is investigating claims of improper behavior by Takata employees or executives. The government agency also seeks answers into whether Takata air bags were built for Honda using machines whose auto-reject function could be turned off; that could allow improper air bags to be produced.