NHTSA to ‘force’ air bag recall; new chief confirmed

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday it will “force” Takata Corp. and three automakers to expand a recall of driver-side air bags to a nationwide callback, as it works to build an “airtight case.”

NHTSA Deputy Chief David Friedman told reporters at an event Tuesday that the agency will go to court if necessary to compel the recall of about 5 million additional vehicles from Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and BMW AG. To date, Honda Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Co. have agreed to expand their callbacks beyond regional campaigns in high-humidity states at NHTSA’s urging. Friedman praised Honda and Mazda for “doing the right thing.”

NHTSA’s push comes as the U.S. Senate late Tuesday confirmed National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind as the agency’s new administrator. NHTSA has been without a permanent chief for a year.

“Dr. Rosekind is prepared for the job ahead and I expect him to be relentless in the pursuit of safety on behalf of the American people,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

Rosekind vowed to work closely with Congress to improve safety.

“I am honored to join NHTSA’s talented and passionate team, and I pledge to work with them to build on the agency’s strong record of saving lives, preventing injuries, and making travel on our roadways safer,” he said.

NHTSA has only issued a formal demand to Takata. On Nov. 18, it disclosed it had asked the five automakers to comply — and required them to answer questions about testing in answers that were due on Dec. 5.

Friedman said the agency is moving toward sending formal demand notices “where we will force” automakers to recall the vehicles. The agency is reviewing tens of thousands of pages “so that we can build an airtight case, so if they force us to go all the way into court — which we will if that’s what it takes to protect the American public, then we will win.”

To force a recall, NHTSA must send a formal demand letter, then respond to the automaker and then convene a public hearing. If an automaker still refuses, NHTSA must file suit in U.S. District Court. The process can take months or potentially years. NHTSA in its history held only a handful of public hearings and hasn’t obtained court orders forcing a recall by an automaker or parts company since the 1970s.

To date, 10 major automakers have recalled more than 11 million vehicles in the United States since 2013 as they struggle to find the root cause.

Friedman praised the work of 10 major automakers to do independent testing. Last week, they met for more than three hours in Romulus. Friedman said the agency wanted automakers to do more.

“We were pushing the industry to significantly expand testing. We didn’t want to just rely on the work that Takata was doing,” Friedman said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the year of record recalls and record fines showed that NHTSA will eventually track down problems. He said if automakers hide things, “it will eventually get found out.”

Foxx acknowledged that the auto safety system hasn’t worked as well as it should.

“It’s disappointing that the system we have hasn’t been working better but it also reminds us that perhaps there’s some things we should be looking to Congress to help us with in terms of giving us additional tools,” Foxx said — including lifting the $35 million cap on fines for delayed recalls.

Foxx said he was satisfied with NHTSA’s analysis that so far has stopped short of calling for a nationwide recall, despite what some in Congress have demanded: “As we learn more, as the data leads us in new directions, we will act accordingly.”

Friedman said it’s too early to jump to conclusions about hundreds of thousands of pages of records that Takata has turned over. “If we find any evidence that Takata hasn’t handled these recalls properly, they will be held fully accountable, and we’re searching through every detail,” Friedman said.

At least five deaths and 50 injuries are linked to the problem, including four deaths in Hondas in the United States.