Senate Dems grill transport chief over air bag recall

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Democrats on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee grilled Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Wednesday over reports that multiple automakers are still equipping cars with air bags made by Japanese supplier Takata that are set to be recalled because of defective inflators.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said four automakers have admitted to equipping some of their newest vehicles with the same kind of air bag inflators that have been placed under recall by the transportation department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Florida senator cited a report that was released by his office last week that accused Fiat Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volkswagen of selling cars that have air bags that are scheduled to be included in later phases of the Takata recall.

In some cases, Nelson said, they also are using parts that are similar to the devices that have been called back as replacements for air bags that are under recall.

“These defective air bags are still being produced … and installed as replacement inflators in the recalled vehicles, meaning that millions of consumers are going to have to replace their air bags not once, but twice,” said Nelson, who is the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“That means a new car buyer is going to buy a new car, and then they’re going to find out that it has an air bag in it that’s going to be on the recall list scheduled for two years from now,” the Florida Democrat continued. “That doesn’t sound very good to me.”

The comments came during a hearing that was intended to focus on the Transportation Department’s implementation of the $305 billion highway funding bill that was approved by Congress last year.

Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee used the opportunity to question Foxx on NHTSA’s handling of the recall of Takata air bags that has recently been expanded to include about 70 million faulty parts. Flying shrapnel from exploding Takata inflators has been tied to 11 deaths, possibly 13 deaths, and more than 100 injuries worldwide.

Takata has been ordered to recall all the defective air bags by the end of 2019. The recall is being implemented in a phased approach that prioritizes cars that were sold in states with high temperature and humidity like Nelson’s native Florida. Michigan is among the lowest-priority states in the recall.

Analysts have said it could take years for all the air bags to be replaced. Some have questioned whether Takata can survive the latest blow.

The companies that were accused of selling cars that have defective Takata air bags have pointed out that their parts are not included in the air bag recall until 2018 or 2019 in most cases.

Republicans on the Commerce Committee largely steered clear of the Takata controversy during the hearing Wednesday, but other Democrats on the panel joined Nelson in grilling Foxx on his handling of the air bag recall.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Foxx should use every tool at his disposal “to stop the sale of these cars with these potential deadly safety defects.

“I think the American public would be aghast and appalled that recalls have not been extended to cars on lots that they are buying, that in effect are subject to the same safety defects as the cars under recall, or to put it differently, that they’re buying defective cars simply because they haven’t been told they’re under recall,” Blumenthal said.

Foxx said NHTSA has recalled all the Takata air bags that have been identified as being prone to rupture.

“I share your frustration with Takata. We have been doggedly pursuing this issue since Day One,” the nation’s transportation chief told Nelson. “We are bound by our authorities to act where there is clear evidence that an action can be taken.”

Foxx told Blumenthal that he does not have the power to force auto companies to stop using parts that have not yet been recalled yet.

“We don’t have the basis to do so, because the evidence isn’t there,” he said. “We have a sense of what’s unsafe, and what’s unsafe have been recalled, and we will continue. We’ve never said this Takata thing has been finalized.”

The explanations were not enough for the Democrats on the committee who are anxious for more stringent enforcement of the Takata recall.

Nelson said he understands the “quandary that NHTSA has found itself in” because “it can’t make enough of these replacement air bags” to keep up with the massive recall.

But the Florida senator disagreed with Foxx’s assessment that NHTSA cannot force automakers to stop using Takata air bags until they are subjected to the recall if the callbacks have already been scheduled.

“The law says you can’t sell it if it has a recalled item, and in this case it’s going to be an item that is going to be recalled in two years,” Nelson continued. “At the very least ... shouldn’t we at least let the buyer know that they’re going to have an air bag that’s going to be recalled in two years if they buy a new car?”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing