U.S. highway safety chief grilled over air bag repairs

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Donald Trump’s temporary top highway safety regulator was grilled Tuesday by senators over the pace of repairs of 50 million recalled air bag inflators made by Takata.

Speaking during a hearing of the U.S. Senate panel that oversees the auto industry, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said: “This recall has been plagued by delays. They are deadly delays. The number of fatalities since our last hearing has doubled. Those are deaths on the road directly attributable to defective air bags.”

Exploding Takata air-bag inflators have been linked to at least 13 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the United States. Twenty-two have died worldwide.

As propellant in the Takata inflators ages, especially in humid conditions, it can become unstable and explode with too much force. That can cause the inflators to rupture and throw metal shrapnel at drivers and passengers.

Nearly 50 million Takata inflators have been recalled in the U.S., making it the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history. Nearly 1 in 8 cars on U.S. roads has been recalled as a result of the defect. Another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be called back in the next couple of years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says only 21.8 million of the air bags recalled by Feb. 2 have been repaired. The defective safety devices from the now-bankrupt Japanese auto supplier were used in 37 million cars that have been recalled.

Acting NHTSA Administrator Heidi King defended the Trump administration’s handling of the recalls, saying “the challenge is unprecedented, but there are positive signs.” She said regulators have encouraged manufacturers to use social media, door-to-door canvassing and other approaches to reach consumers who were unresponsive to traditional outreach efforts.

King acknowledged that some drivers will likely have to wait for repairs to their vehicles because the Takata recall is being conducted in phases that target the must vulnerable cars in humid climates.

Republicans on the panel noted that Congress has taken action to try to increase the pace of repair, including increasing maximum fines – from $35 million to $105 million – that could be levied against automakers who violate federal protocols for reporting defects.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, acknowledged the wide scope of the Takata recall, saying the “numbers that are anticipated to continue to grow in a process that may play out for another 10 to 15 years.”

“It is imperative that all these recalled vehicles are repaired,” Moran said. “I encourage everyone watching this hearing today to pay attention to recall notices on your vehicle and call the closest dealership for a repair.”

Desi Ujkashevic, global director of Ford Motor Co.’s automotive safety office, said her company has achieved a 46 percent completion rate for the 1.57 million inflators it has that is under recall.

“For the vehicles NHTSA has designated as the highest priority – the Mustang, Ranger and GT – we now have non-Takata, non-ammonium nitrate replacement parts available,” she said. “We will have final replacement parts for Ford vehicles lower on NHTSA’s priority list in the coming months.”

Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America, which has 18.5 million Takata recalled inflators in some 11.9 million vehicles, noted that automakers are planning to unveil a new look-up tool that “that will make it easier and faster for state motor vehicle departments, insurance companies, auction houses, repair shops, car dealers and others to look up vehicles affected by safety recalls. The new tool will be capable of looking up batches of up to 10,000 VIN numbers at one time, he said.

“This unprecedented public health challenge requires unprecedented action from every stakeholder in the effort to find and notify customers,” he said.