Honda accused of not reporting all air bag incidents

Jeff Plungis and Jeff Green
Bloomberg News

Honda Motor Co. is being accused by a watchdog group of underreporting injuries and fatalities from defective air bags, hampering a U.S. government system designed to spot patterns in automotive flaws.

The Center for Auto Safety, a research group that has been tracking recalls and defects since it was founded in 1970, asked transportation regulators today to refer Honda to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation. It cited a 2009 fatality and an August 2013 incident resulting in serious injury that weren’t included in Honda’s Early Warning Reports.

Two spokesmen in the U.S. for Tokyo-based Honda couldn’t immediately be reached for comment by telephone or email.

The issue being raised centers around Takata Corp. — a main supplier of air bags to Honda, Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. — and how car companies have responded to defects in the safety feature. Honda is Takata’s biggest customer and has said it’s called back 6 million vehicles for problems with the air bags in nine recalls since 2008.

Honda failed to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of several air-bag incidents that led to deaths and lawsuits, the Center for Auto Safety said in a letter today to David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator.

A NHTSA spokeswoman, Karen Aldana, didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.

Automakers are required to file quarterly reports to NHTSA about fatalities, injuries, lawsuits, warranty claims and customer complaints under a 2000 law. The safety agency is supposed to analyze Early Warning Reports to spot trends suggestive of safety defects as soon as possible.

“The whole purpose is to get to major defects quicker,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said in an interview. “You can’t protect the public if a company doesn’t turn over EWR reports.”

General Motors Co. reported 1,716 early-warning death and and injury claims to NHTSA last year, while Toyota logged 1,774, according to Ditlow’s group. Honda during that same period reported 28, the center said. In the first quarter of 2014, GM reported 505, Toyota 377 and Honda 6, it said.

Separately, U.S. Senators Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, wrote to NHTSA Wednesday expressing alarm over the agency’s use of limited “regional” recalls to address defects like the Takata air bags.

Noting the Center for Auto Safety allegations against Honda, Markey and Blumenthal asked NHTSA for additional information about how the agency ensures compliance with reporting requirements.

“We are concerned that NHTSA has not made real efforts to determine whether automakers have complied with this requirement to alert the public to potentially deadly defects,” they said in a statement.