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Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday it is upgrading its investigation into millions of vehicles with potentially defective Takata air bags. It ordered the Japanese auto parts company to preserve all air bag inflators used in testing.

Upgrading the investigation is necessary in order for the agency to begin the process of forcing Takata to recall air bags if the agency determines they pose an unreasonable risk to driver safety. NHTSA officials last year pledged to go to court if necessary if Takata refused to declare some air bags defective.

NHTSA’s order requires Takata to preserve all air bag inflators removed through the recall process as “evidence for both NHTSA’s investigation and private litigation cases.” The order also ensures NHTSA’s access to all data from the testing of those inflators.

Takata is prohibited from destroying or damaging any inflators except as is necessary to conduct testing and it must set aside 10 percent of recalled inflators and make them available to plaintiffs suing the company for testing.

In June, NHTSA opened an investigation into exploding Takata air bags and since then has pushed automakers to expand recalls —including all driver-side airbags. Inflators in the devices can explode and throw shrapnel at drivers and passengers. At least six deaths and 64 injuries are linked to the problem.

“This department is focused on protecting the American public from these defective air bags and at getting to the bottom of how they came to be included in millions of vehicles on U.S. roads,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “This preservation order will help us get the answers we need to accomplish those goals.”

Since 2008, automakers have recalled about 17 million vehicles with Takata air bags. In 2014, five automakers — BMW AG, Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp. — launched national recalls at NHTSA’s urging for defective driver-side air bags.

Those five automakers, in addition to General Motors Co., Mitsubishi, Nissan Motor Co, Subaru Motors USA and Toyota Motor Corp., are recalling vehicles for defective passenger-side air bags in areas of consistently high humidity, which NHTSA believes is a factor in the ruptures.

The 10 automakers plan to announce as early as this week they are hiring a firm with significant aerospace experience as part of an industrywide effort to get to the root cause. NHTSA has hired an outside firm and Takata has also hired a firm in its testing of at least 10,000 inflators to date.

“There is a strong public safety interest in ensuring that testing moves forward, and that NHTSA has access to all test data,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “We have worked closely with attorneys for private plaintiffs to construct this order so that it protects plaintiffs’ legal rights while also supporting our efforts to protect public safety.”

Separately, NHTSA last week began levying $14,000 a day in civil penalties against Takata for failing to respond to requests for information about more than 2.5 million pages of documents it has produced to NHTSA. Takata denies wrongdoing.

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