Honda links another death to Takata air bag

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Honda Motor Co. said Friday it has confirmed a Takata air bag ruptured in a 2002 Honda Accord on Jan. 18 in a fatal crash that appears to be the sixth death linked to exploding air bags in Honda vehicles.

The Japanese automaker also said the Texas owner — who bought the vehicle from a used-car dealer on April 25 — never received notice of a June recall for high-humidity areas and never received any letter about the 2011 recall for the driver-side air bag. The repairs were never made.

"Honda sent several mailed recall notifications to the registered owner of the vehicle starting in 2011. The current owner purchased the vehicle on April 25, 2014, after the recall was initiated, and Honda had not yet sent mailed notification to the current owner at the time of the crash," Honda spokesman Chris Martin said.

Used-car dealers and individuals aren't required to get recalled cars repaired before selling them — and they don't have to notify buyers of dangerous problems that haven't been fixed. The Obama administration and many in Congress have sought to ban the practice, along with requiring rental car companies to get recalls completed before renting them. But the legislation has gone nowhere.

Honda has faced intense scrutiny because of problems with the air bags. The company said it now confirms 52 injuries in the U.S. linked to Hondas with Takata air bags, and three deaths. A fourth suspected death in California remains under investigation, as does the death in Texas. Honda also has confirmed a death in Malaysia is linked to a defective Takata air bag.

It has recalled more than 9 million vehicles in seven separate campaigns since 2008 for defective Takata air bags.

In total, 10 automakers have now recalled more than 14.5 million vehicles with Takata bags since 2013.

Earlier this month, Honda agreed to pay a $70 million fine — the largest auto safety fine in U.S. history — for failing to disclose more than 1,700 reports of deaths, injuries and other "early warning" information to NHTSA over more than a decade.

On Friday, U.S. Sens Bill Nelson, D-Florida; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; and Ed Markey, D-Massachussets, wrote to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind to ask for a comprehensive update on NHTSA's oversight of recalls and voluntary service campaigns connected to the Takata air bag defect.

"We trust that you agree it is imperative that these dangerous and deadly air bags be taken off the roads and repaired as quickly as possible," the senators wrote.

They asked NHTSA to compel Takata and car manufacturers to work with additional air bag manufacturers to speed up the availability of replacement parts.

They wrote: "With more than 12 million impacted vehicles in the United States, it will take over two years to repair all of them. NHTSA has authority to compel Takata to share information with other air bag manufacturers in order to expedite the repair process and ensure a sufficient number of replacement parts are available. The American public is counting on NHTSA to do the right thing and use all of the authority at its disposal to prevent more avoidable deaths, injuries, and damages."

NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge responded with a statement on the letter.

"NHTSA appreciates the vigilance these members of Congress have demonstrated on an urgent safety matter. The possibility that the Takata defect may have cost another life is tragic, and NHTSA is determined to get to the bottom of this problem and to take whatever action is necessary to protect the driving public. NHTSA is committed to using every tool available to pursue its safety mission, including many of the options outlined in the letter."

In addition to requesting data on total vehicles repaired and information on speeding up replacement parts, the three urged NHTSA to conduct its own independent testing of Takata air bags.

"This is a classic example of the fox guarding the hen house, and it should be remedied immediately. Takata, and the vehicle manufacturers, have a very obvious pecuniary interest in the outcome of the testing and investigation," the letter states.

"Furthermore, millions of Americans are currently waiting on replacement inflators — and need to know that the new parts are safe and fix the problem. That assurance can only be given if NHTSA or other independent parties can test defective inflators, as well as the new replacements, and verify that they actually fix this very serious defect."

The senators cited a declaration from Frank Borris, director of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, in a court filing that "all inflators that are removed as part of these recall efforts are being shipped directly from the dealers who repair the recalled vehicles to Takata's facility in Auburn Hills."

The senators said Borris added that NHTSA is "exploring whether it will develop and implement its own testing program to augment the testing efforts by Takata and the vehicle manufacturers' coalition."