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Takata, Honda grilled at airbag hearing

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Honda Motor Co. and air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. came under harsh criticism from a Senate panel Thursday for not expanding recalls across the nation for air bag inflators that could send metal fragments flying at drivers and passengers.

It was a replay of the grilling General Motors Co. faced in four separate hearings for delaying a recall fix linked to at least 33 deaths. This time, Honda and Takata — along with Chrysler Group LLC and the deputy chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — faced a Congressional panel.

Senators called the air bags that have been linked to five deaths in Hondas — including four in the United States — “ticking time bombs, ” a “live hand grenade in front of drivers” and “lethal deathtraps.” And once again, automakers found themselves with no advocates on a Congressional panel

Several senators vowed to step up efforts for dramatic reforms of NHTSA and auto safety laws. They pushed automakers to offer loaner cars: Chrysler said it would consider it on a case by case basis; Honda said it would provide loaner cars.

Many of the recalls currently are limited to high-humidity areas. NHTSA called Tuesday for five major automakers — Honda, Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., Mazda Motor Co. and BMW AG — to expand nationwide the recalls for driver-side air bags, but said there isn’t enough evidence to do so for passenger air bags.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said if the chemistry in the propellant was to blame, it could prompt a further recall of cars that already have been fixed. He noted there are 100 million Takata air bags worldwide, including about 30 million in the United States.

“This could be a problem of gargantuan proportions that is going to need the aggressiveness of the federal regulator to try to protect the public,” Nelson said, saying he wants lifted the $35 million cap on fines for automakers who delay recalls.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, asked Honda executive vice president Rick Schostek if it was safe for his 18-year-old daughter to drive his wife’s 2007 Honda Civic — even though only the 2001-2005 Civic has been recalled.

Schostek paused eight seconds before answering. He eventually said if the vehicle hadn’t been recalled, then it was safe. But he didn’t explain why the Civic recall was limited to earlier models. That didn’t satisfy senators. Nelson told Heller, “Better tell your daughter not to drive South in her Honda.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who chaired two GM hearings, said it was “incredible” a U.S. senator could ask if his daughter’s car was safe to drive, “and it was clear you weren’t sure how to answer it. That’s a problem. We have a problem.”

The hearing came the same day four senators — Heller, Nelson, McCaskill and the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota — proposed whistleblower protection for auto industry employees that would allow them to receive up to 30 percent of fines collected by NHTSA or the Justice Department.

It’s the first major piece of auto safety legislation backed by Republicans, and the strongest sign that Congress next year is likely to consider major auto safety reforms and a NHTSA overhaul.

Takata apologizes

Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president for global quality assurance for Takata, apologized for the defects that have been linked to five deaths in the company’s cars. He said it “is imperative that all owners of the affected vehicles in these regions respond to the recall notices at the earliest opportunity.”

Shimizu was pressed repeatedly on whether Takata would conduct an independent investigation as GM did.

Scott Kunselman, senior vice president and head of vehicle safety and regulatory compliance at Chrysler, was asked why the company isn’t starting its recall of 371,000 vehicles for Takata airbags until December — and not notifying owners until next month of the recall that was launched in June. Friedman said he would push for earlier notification.

Honda’s Schostek admitted to a series of missteps. He confirmed Honda’s recall website had given some owners wrong answers about whether vehicles had pending recalls. He admitted Honda could have moved faster; it has issued seven separate recalls and two safety campaigns since 2008 for more than 6 million vehicles in the United States for faulty Takata bags.

He said the company and its dealer failed to notify an Air Force lieutenant in Florida that her car had a pending recall; she was seriously injured by an air bag in September 2013. “We have to do better,” Schostek said.


‘The system failed’

David Friedman, the deputy NHTSA administrator, said the agency doesn’t have the data to back a nationwide recall for passenger side air bags. But he said the agency is talking to two other manufacturers and hiring an air bag expert to try to boost the number of replacement parts. None have yet agreed to so, Friedman said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said even at an accelerated pace of 450,000 parts per month by Takata it could take more than two years to get enough parts. Blumenthal said the auto industry still doesn’t know precisely why the inflators have failed. “The system failed,” Blumenthal said.

Nelson 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 Friedman said NHTSA doesn’t have that authority.

“Takata took too long to discover the problems with their air bags,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachussetts, said at a press conference before the hearing. He noted that NHTSA hasn’t yet demanded a nationwide recall for passenger air bags, and 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”