Consumers Union seeks answers on air bag recall

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A unit of the influential magazine Consumers Reports wants federal regulators to answer questions about the new recall of 2.3 million vehicles with an electronic glitch that could cause air bags to deploy inadvertently.

Consumers Union, the policy arm of the magazine with more than 8 million subscribers, asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the vehicles with electronic control units manufactured by TRW.

On Jan. 31, NHTSA said four automakers would issue a new recall for a electronic defect that may cause air bags to deploy inadvertently. The latest recalls provide vehicle owners with a new remedy after the manufacturers’ original attempts to fix the electronic defect in a series of recalls in 2012, 2013 and 2014 wasn’t “fully effective,” NHTSA said. NHTSA said it has reports of about 40 vehicles in which air bags deployed unexpectedly after receiving the original recall fix.

The new recall covers the following vehicles: 928,000 2002-2003 Jeep Liberty, 2002-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Viper worldwide; 405,000 2003-2004 Honda Odyssey and 2003 Acura MDX; and 1.01 million 2003-2004 Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix, Toyota Avalon and Pontiac Vibe. The Pontiac Vibe vehicles were built by Toyota for General Motors Co. at a now closed joint operation.

NHTSA said owners should take the issue seriously — especially because about 1 million Toyota and Honda vehicles involved in these new recalls are also subject to a recall related to defective Takata air bags that may deploy with enough explosive force to cause injury or even death to vehicle occupants.

NHTSA said it is seeking additional information from supplier Livonia-based TRW, which made the electronic part believed to be involved in the inadvertent deployments, about the potential defect, its causes, and whether other makes or models are impacted.

Consumers Union asked in a letter: “You have alerted consumers to a potential hazard in their cars and asked them to get the vehicles fixed. However, many who get repairs will leave their dealership with a defective part. How can we, as Consumers Union and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, assure consumers that this is a safe choice? What data does NHTSA have that it can share to help provide assurance to consumers that these temporary fixes are a good idea?”

The letter also raised particular concerns for cars with defective Takata air bags, “which could explode with excessive force upon deployment and send metal shards into an occupant at speeds that could cause serious injury or death. Will NHTSA be pushing for repairs for the current TRW defect to be prioritized for vehicles that also may contain a defective Takata air bag?”

The group also said the new recall raises questions about measures NHTSA and manufacturers take to ensure that remedies fully address a safety defects.: “Are follow-up steps such as on-site inspections or additional testing required to make sure that a manufacturer’s proposed fix actually works? Does NHTSA have the resources it needs to pursue such steps?”

NHTSA didn’t offer immediate comment.

In a Detroit News interview earlier Tuesday before the letter was released, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the agency was planning an update on Takata and the defect that is now linked to more than 14.5 million vehicles recalled in the United States since 2013. “We are discussing right now the status of Takata,” Rosekind said. “Rather than people have to ask us what’s going on, what’s going, we’re going to actually come out with some information.”

Rosekind said there are a lot of issues including testing, parts availability. He said NHTSA is also reviewing a suspected sixth death linked to the issue reported in Texas last month.

No deaths have been linked to the issue — and there have been no injuries in any of the vehicles previously recalled and fixed. The recall announcement came more than a week after NHTSA brought the automaker in for a meeting to discuss this issue.

Automakers have said the risks are small.

FCA US LLC said it will recall 928,000 vehicles worldwide for the issue. The automaker said it will upgrade a repair performed as part of a 2012 recall, in which a filter was installed to ensure proper function. “Since that time, a small number of vehicles affected by the initial campaign (approximately 0.003 percent of the total) were subject to post-repair inadvertent air-bag deployments, Chrysler said. “Some vehicle occupants suffered minor injuries from contact with the air bags; FCA US is aware of a single related accident.”