U.S. urges nationwide expansion of air bag recalls

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urged five major automakers including Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC to issue nationwide recalls for "millions" of additional vehicles for defective driver-side air bag inflators that can rupture and send metal fragments flying.

Until now, the recalls of the air bags made by Takata Corp. had largely been limited to high-humidity areas like Florida.

NHTSA's urgent request announced late Tuesday to the automakers — which also included BMW and Mazda — is the latest sign the crisis over defective air bags inflators is mushrooming. Five deaths have been linked to the exploding air bags.

The federal safety agency announced the move before it could even disclose which vehicles it wants recalled, or how many. But it vowed to make the information public as soon as "humanly possible."

None of the five automakers immediately agreed to the recall late Tuesday.

NHTSA said it made the request after learning two weeks ago of an air bag rupture in August in a 2007 Ford Mustang in North Carolina — a state not covered by the regional recalls. Prior to that, there had been only one report — in California — of a driver air bag rupturing outside the high-humidity areas. After the second report, NHTSA Administrator David Friedman said the agency had enough data to act. He said NHTSA on Monday asked Takata to declare the air bags defective nationally, but the company refused.

Friedman said NHTSA would take legal steps to attempt to "force" a national recall. Under federal law, it could take many months — including holding a formal public hearing — before NHTSA could go to court to try to compel automakers to recall vehicles if they don't agree.

The announcement comes two days before a Senate committee is set to grill NHTSA, Takata, Honda and Chrysler officials about the recalls.

Since 2013, 10 major automakers have recalled 7.8 million vehicles in the United States for defective Takata air bags. Most were built before 2008. The defect is linked to five deaths worldwide in Hondas, including four in the United States. Some of the victims were so badly injured that police initially thought they were murder victims. At least 30 more people have been injured in Hondas; a small number of injuries have been reported in vehicles made by other automakers.

NHTSA is seeking detailed answers from 10 automakers in all about their testing of air bags outside high-humidity areas. It wants those answers by Dec. 5.

The expanded recall will create additional supply problems for automakers and Takata. Already, automakers can't get enough replacement inflators to fix all the vehicles in the regional recalls — and Takata has said it could take months to catch up. The agency still doesn't think passenger-side air bags in regional recalls need to be expanded nationally, since it has no reports of ruptures in those air bags outside of high-humidity areas.

Takata said Tuesday that of almost 1,000 passenger and driver-side inflators from outside the high-humidity areas that have been tested, none have ruptured.

"Takata remains committed to minimizing the risk to public safety by prioritizing replacement hardware to the regions in question," spokesman Alby Berman said "Takata is concerned that a national recall under these circumstances could potentially divert replacement air bags from where they're needed, putting lives at risk."

Automakers study request

Automakers said they are studying NHTSA's request. None immediately said they would agree to the expansion.

"Honda will continue to cooperate with the NHTSA in its industrywide effort to investigate abnormal air bag inflator deployments, including, as warranted by the developing investigation, expanding the recalls affecting our vehicles," spokesman Chris Martin said.

The Japanese automaker said Monday it will replace any air bag inflators nationwide if owners complain, but has said it had no plans to expand the recall to all states.

Chrysler said it was studying the request. "The company has been and will remain transparent with NHTSA about this issue," it said.

The automaker said last week it will start replacing next month air bag inflators on 371,000 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.

Ford said in a statement, "We just learned about this new request from NHTSA and are quickly evaluating it. We will continue to cooperate with NHTSA, as we have been, and will take the appropriate action."

On Friday, Ford said it would expand its recall of 25,000 2004-05 Ranger pickup trucks to both passenger and driver air bags after Takata said the vehicle has similar inflators to a Honda vehicle involved in an incident that killed a pregnant woman in July in Malaysia. Ford initially said it would only replace the passenger air bags in the vehicles.

Ford said earlier it was replacing driver-side airbags in the regional callbacks in the 2005-08 Ford Mustang and 2005-06 GT; those are vehicles NHTSA would likely want to recall nationally. But NHTSA is not identifying any vehicles until it has a complete list.

Takata changed inflators

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, had been pushing for a national Takata air bag recall since June. He is glad NHTSA took the action. "Clearly, what we had in place before was simply a Band-Aid approach," Ditlow said in a phone interview.

"This is one of the worst mass defects that we've seen where it affects a large number of vehicles and large number of manufacturers," he said. He estimated the total of potential recalled vehicles could top 20 million.

Ditlow said the big unknown is the date when Takata improved the inflators. "The key question is, when did they change it?" he said. "They're going to have to recall all the vehicles before they changed it."

NHTSA issued a special order to Takata on Tuesday, compelling it to provide documents and detailed information on the propellant used in its inflators.

"In recent days, Takata has publicly conceded that it changed the chemical mix of its air bag inflator propellant in newly designed inflators," NHTSA said. "As part of its ongoing investigation, the agency will analyze the information received to determine if the chemical composition of Takata's propellant mix may be a cause and/or contributing factor in the air bag inflator ruptures."

U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachussetts, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, praised NHTSA's action.

"By expanding recalls beyond the most humid areas, NHTSA today acknowledged that the danger presented by Takata air bags is not limited to any one part of the country," they said. "NHTSA should additionally expand this recall to include passenger air bags that could injure or kill those not behind the wheel."

Issue ammo for reforms

The growing controversy could give safety advocates the ammunition to win sweeping auto safety reforms from Congress, which proposed but didn't approve most proposals in 2010 in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden acceleration recalls.

The Obama administration wants Congress to grant the agency sweeping new authority to get unsafe vehicles off the road faster and hike maximum fines for failing to recall vehicles in a timely fashion to $300 million, up from the current $35 million.

"By issuing this national recall, NHTSA has demonstrated once again that it will follow data and evidence to protect the lives of Americans on the road and to hold manufacturers accountable," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Since the affected vehicles are at least six years old, it isn't likely to have an immediate impact on sales, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research.

"The incidence of a problem is extremely rare," Cole said, noting that out of tens of millions of cars on the roads only a few incidents have been reported despite thousands of crashes where air bags deployed without problems. "It's still a big complex mess."

Staff writers Michael Martinez and Michael Wayland contributed.