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NHTSA chief defends regional passenger air bag recall

David Friedman, the deputy NHTSA administrator, will tell the Senate Commerce Committee, that the agency doesn't have the data to back a nationwide recall

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The second-highest ranking official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is defending the agency's decision not to seek a nationwide recall for some passenger-side air bags produced by Takata Corp.

Japanese auto parts maker Takata Corp's auto accessories on display at a car showroom in Tokyo. The second-highest ranking official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is defending the agency's decision not to seek a nationwide recall for some passenger-side air bags produced by the company.

David Friedman, the deputy NHTSA administrator, will tell the Senate Commerce Committee, that the agency doesn't have the data to back a nationwide recall for passenger side air bags. He did urge five automakers — Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, BMW AG and Mazda Motor Co. — to expand a regional airbag recall nationally for driver side air bags.

"To date, there have been no ruptures in those tests for passenger's side front air bags, but we are pushing Takata and the manufacturers to accelerate efforts to get even more tests done around the nation, and we are evaluating field incidents as we are made aware of them," Friedman's written testimony said. The regional recalls of vehicles with defective Takata passenger side air bags ensure that the limited supply of replacement parts goes to vehicles in areas of demonstrated risk – Florida, the Gulf Coast and other areas of high absolute humidity. At this point, a national recall of all Takata air bags would divert replacement air bags from areas where they are clearly needed, putting lives at risk."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairing the hearing, said all automakers must offer free loaners if they don't have enough parts. He praised General Motors Co. for offering free loaners. He's asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to fine automakers that don't offer loaners, but it is not clear that the government has the authority to do so.

Takata this week used the same language to oppose expanding a driver side recall nationally arguing that expansion would put lives at risk. Friedman said after two incidents — including an August deployment of a driver side airbag in a 2007 Ford Mustang in North Carolina that led to a leg injury — that there was enough data to warrant immediate action.

Rick Schostek, executive vice president with Honda North America, said Honda has recalled more than 5 million vehicles in the United States in seven separate recall campaigns since 2008. The company said it has called more than 700,000 hard-to-reach customers by phone, using our customer relations staff, our dealers, and automated calls.

Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president for global quality assurance for Takata, apologized for the defects that have been linked to five deaths in Honda vehicles worldwide — including four in the United States. "Our best current judgment is that the root causes of these inflator ruptures likely involve a combination of three factors: (1) the age of the unit; (2) persistent exposure over time to conditions of high absolute humidity; and (3) potential production issues, which we have worked to identify and address," his testimony says.

Shimizu said it "is imperative that all owners of the affected vehicles in these regions respond to the recall notices at the earliest opportunity." He said the company is making 300,000 replacement airbag inflators per month "and will be increasing those production levels beginning in January. We believe we will be able to meet the demand currently expected from automakers for these replacement units."

"Takata took too long to discover the problems with their air bags," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said at a press conference before the hearing with the sister of a 2003 crash noting that NHTSA hasn't yet demanded a nationwide recall for passenger air bags. He said it is time to end the practice of regional recalls. "Every one of these Takata air bags could be a ticking time bomb... It's time to get them all off the road"

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, said the auto industry still doesn't know precisely why these air bags have failed. "The system failed," Blumenthal said. He said the hearing should "lead toward action" and push NHTSA to compel a national recall for passenger side air bags. He wants all automakers to commit to loaners for all owners awaiting recall parts.

Blumenthal wants Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to order automakers to use other airbag manufacturers to build replacement parts to get vehicles repaired faster. Takata has said it will take months to build enough parts — even at a ramped up pace.

Scott G. Kunselman, senior vice president and head of vehicle safety & regulatory compliance at Chrysler, noted that there are two types of Takata air bags that have had issues. The ones linked to the five deaths are not in any Chrysler vehicles.

In October 2013, Chrysler learned of an incident in a Chrysler vehicle in southern Florida was subject to a high-pressure deployment involving a driver's-side air bag and caused a personal injury. "This remains the one incident of its kind involving one of our vehicles," he said.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com