Senate panel set to hold hearing on defective airbags

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Senate Commerce Committee next week will hold a new hearing on the record-setting recall of 33.8 million vehicles by 11 automakers with potentially defective Takata airbags.

In a notice sent to Senate offices late Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee said it will hold a June 23 hearing titled, “Update on the Recalls of Defective Takata Air Bags and NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Efforts.”

The hearing’s witnesses are expected to include officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General, Takata and unnamed automakers.

It comes as NHTSA says it is taking charge of the Takata recalls by using for the first time authority it received from Congress in 2000. Last week, a seventh death was confirmed by Honda Motor Co. linked to a defective Takata airbag rupturing and sending deadly fragments flying.

Honda and Toyota Motor Corp. announced this week they are each recalling more than 1 million vehicles.

A committee aide told The Detroit News the panel wants an update on Takata’s corrective efforts, NHTSA’s management of the recall and automakers’ efforts to address safety concerns created by the defective airbags.

The aide said the Transportation Department inspector general for the first time will publicly discuss an investigation into NHTSA’s handling of the similarly high-profile recall of faulty ignition switches in General Motors vehicles.

NHTSA is bracing for what are expected to be scathing reports into the General Motors recall from the inspector general and Government Accountability Office. The IG report into NHTSA’s failure to detect GM’s delayed recall of 2.6 million vehicles linked to 114 deaths and more than 200 injuries is expected by the end of this month.

The Department of Transportation’s probe “raises more questions” for Senate investigators about NHTSA’s effectiveness in addressing safety defects — including the probe of defective airbags, the aide said.

The hearing is the second from Congress in the last month following a House hearing last month. It is the first major Senate hearing on auto safety since Republicans took control of the upper body in January.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in a Detroit News interview last week he is considering legislative proposals to reform NHTSA, but said he is still not convinced the auto safety agency needs more funding.

Thune said “the White House has not been very visible” on the NHTSA request for more funding.

In an interview Tuesday, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he hasn't made any decisions about whether he will propose auto safety legislation. He backed an amendment to the House Transportation budget last week that would add $4 million to NHTSA's budget.

“We want to make sure that (NHTSA) is able to deliver,” Upton said.