Takata: Report on delayed airbag recalls not accurate

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A new report says Takata Corp. was or should have been aware of serious safety issues in air bags as early as 2001 that are now linked to eight deaths and more than 100 injuries. It raises questions about whether replacement air bags are safe.

Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee on Monday issued a 45-page report into the nation's largest-ever recall of about 34 million vehicles by 11 automakers for air bags that can explode and send shrapnel flying. The panel is set to hold another hearing on the recall on Tuesday.

On Friday, Takata confirmed an eighth death linked to the defect.

The report says that "after more than 100 injuries and eight deaths allegedly caused by shrapnel from its rupturing air bags over a period of more than 10 years," no one can identify a root cause of the ruptures.

"Yet, Takata is currently producing hundreds of thousands of replacement inflators each month that may not completely eliminate the risk of air bag rupture," the report said.

Takata has said an unknown number of air bags that already have been replaced in the recall will need to be replaced again.

"It appears that Takata was aware, or should have been aware, of serious safety and quality control lapses in its manufacturing plants as early as 2001," the report says, which is based in part on more than 13,000 documents provided by Takata that total more than 90,000 pages. "Had Takata maintained a more robust culture of safety, it is likely that many of these defects could have been discovered much sooner."

Takata spokesman Jared Levy blasted the report.

"The report contains a number of inaccuracies based largely on old media articles that Takata has previously refuted, and emails that are taken out of context and characterized in ways that creates a false impression," Levy said. "For example, the global audits referenced in the emails relate to the safe handling by employees of pyrotechnic materials — they were not, as the report implies, related to product quality or safety. Takata conducts regular reviews of product quality and safety at Moses Lake and Monclova, and at no time were those halted.

"As an additional layer of quality assurance, Takata has convened an independent Quality Assurance Panel to conduct a comprehensive review to ensure Takata's current manufacturing procedures meet best practices. We are committed to proper manufacturing practices and to the safety of our employees and the driving public."

An internal Takata email from 2011 says the company had halted "global safety audits" two years earlier for "financial reasons." Other emails raised concerns about production issues at Takata's Monclova plant in Mexico.

NHTSA didn't immediately comment on the report.

The report also said Takata was informed of three serious incidents involving faulty inflators in the first half of 2007. But the first recall of about 4,000 series was not issued until November 2008 by Honda Motor Co. — more than a year later. It wasn't until 2013 that major recalls were launched by other automakers.

Takata emails suggest that the Japanese supplier may have "prioritized profit over safety by halting global safety audits for financial reasons."

The report criticizes NHTSA for not opening an investigation until June 2014 and says it "failed to promptly investigate Takata's defective air bags. NHTSA conducted an investigation related to the inflators in November 2009, but the investigation only dealt with the scope and timeliness of two previous recalls, and it was closed in May 2010."

It urges Congress to approve more funding and more authority for NHTSA. "NHTSA is plagued by a chronic lack of resources. Currently, the agency is underfunded and outmanned — only 51 employees are responsible for analyzing an overwhelming amount of data and conducting appropriate investigations," the report said.

The White House wants to triple NHTSA's defects budget and double staffing, but Republicans have shown little interest.

And the report says NHTSA needs more authority.

NHTSA in May said it was taking the unprecedented action of using broad oversight over 11 major automakers to speed the massive recall of the air bags. 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.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit in May confirmed it is taking a leading role in the criminal investigation launched late last year in New York.