Congress to hold new Takata air bag hearing

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A House Energy and Commerce panel will hold a June 2 hearing on the record-setting recall of nearly 34 million vehicles with potentially defective Takata air bags by 11 automakers.

The subcommittee on commerce, manufacturing and trade will hold a hearing, its first in nearly six months on the issue of exploding air bags linked to at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries. It will come two weeks after Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata, under heavy pressure from the Obama administration, agreed to declare 33.8 million vehicles defective.

The hearing titled, “An Update on the Takata Airbag Ruptures and Recalls,” is to “continue the subcommittee’s work to better understand the problems leading to the safety recall for nearly 34 million automobiles resulting from faulty Takata air bags,” the committee said. “Members will also review the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s response as they seek answers about this ongoing safety issue.”

The panel held a hearing in December, where Takata and NHTSA came under criticism. The Senate Commerce Committee also held a Takata hearing last year and has been holding staff briefings on the issue in recent days. It may follow the House hearing with its own hearing.

Government officials say the campaign could take years to complete and be the single largest U.S. recall of any consumer product, surpassing the callback of 31 million bottles of Tylenol in 1982 amid a poison scare.

To date, 10 automakers have recalled more than 18 million vehicles with Takata air bags in the United States and are expected to identify the other 16 million vehicles impacted later this week. An 11th, Daimler Trucks, was added when the recall expanded to 33.8 million vehicles.

The massive air bag recall covers more than 13 percent of all cars and trucks on the roads in the United States today. It will easily surpass the largest automotive recall: more than 20 million vehicles by Ford Motor Co. in 1980 for a transmission issue that only required the addition of a warning sticker.

“We want to get the answers,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who heads the full committte, in an interview at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “We want to make sure cars are safe, whether they be tires or air bags.”

Upton said he had a personal experience with a life-saving air bag Thursday night while driving his Ford Explorer home to St. Joseph from the South Bend, Indiana, airport. Upton said his air bags deployed after he hit two deer on a highway after crossing into Michigan, seriously damaging the SUV.

The congressman said he was uninjured in the crash. “Maybe I’m lucky it wasn’t a Takata,” Upton told The Detroit News.

Upton said he wasn’t going to prejudge the way Takata handled its defective air bags.

“We’re digging into this,” Upton said. “We’re not going to make any premature decisions.”

Last week, NHTSA said it would take an unprecedented step of launching an effort to assert broad oversight over 11 major automakers to speed the massive recall.

NHTSA said Thursday it intends to use its authority under a 2000 federal law called the TREAD Act for the first time to oversee what will be the largest auto recall in U.S. history. The federal agency could order additional production of replacement parts by other suppliers, decide how the parts are used and where, and exercise broad authority over the callback.

Upton said last year he was considering introducing auto safety legislation, but has said in recent months he is waiting for a review of NHTSA’s actions by the Transportation Department’s inspector general, which was ordered in the face of General Motors Co. delayed recall of 2.6 million cars for ignition defects that are linked to at least 107 deaths and nearly 200 injuries.

In a Detroit News interview in February, Upton said he hasn’t focused on auto safety issues this year. “I just haven’t had a chance to focus on it yet,” he said. He was noncommittal on whether he will bring up auto safety legislation this year.

Democrats on the panel, led by the ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., have called for sweeping auto safety reforms.

Pallone, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and others in February reintroduced a measure that would dramatically hike NHTSA’s auto safety budget by at least $100 million by 2017 by imposing a $3 fee on all new car sales that would rise to $9 by 2018.

The small fee was proposed by Democrats in 2010 but has garnered little support. The Obama administration proposed this month tripling NHTSA’s auto safety budget to $31.7 million and doubling its staff to more than 100 employees. The House Appropriations Committee overseeing NHTSA didn’t approve any new funding for defect investigations in a hearing earlier this month.