Transportation chief orders review of air bag recall

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx confirmed Friday he’s ordered a review of how regulators handled a recall of 7.8 million vehicles by 10 major automakers for Takata Corp. air bags linked to four deaths in Honda vehicles since 2009.

Last week, a senior administration official told reporters NHTSA’s handling of the recall was “suboptimal.”

Foxx told The Detroit News on Friday that NHTSA’s handling of the recall “wasn’t flawless in the sense” that there were mistakes in press releases — some wrong cars and the wrong number of vehicles were listed in releases on successive days last week. And the website at which car owners could check to see if the vehicles were recalled wasn’t working for much of the week.

“That’s what was suboptimal,” Foxx said. He praised NHTSA’s “incredible track record” over the last decade.

Foxx’s comments came on the same day that Nissan Motor Co. said it will expand by nearly 2,000 its recall of vehicles with potentially faulty air bags produced by Japanese parts supplier Takata.

Nissan said it is calling back 1,848 2013 Infiniti QX56 and 2014 Infiniti QX80 vehicles after it launched an investigation following a General Motors Co. recall in June. Takata determined they were similar.

Nissan has been actively monitoring field information and has not seen any reports of issues. Last week, Nissan said it was expanding its recall of vehicles with Takata air bags worldwide by 260,000, but didn’t say any new U.S. models were being added.

Nissan’s initial recall covered 695,000 U.S. vehicles, including the 2001-03 Maxima, 2001-04 Pathfinder, 2002-04 Sentra, 2002-03 Infiniti QX4, 2003-05 Infiniti FX35-FX45 and 2001-2004 Infiniti I30 and I35.

Takata air bags are linked to four deaths in Honda vehicles stemming from malfunctions that sent metal fragments into vehicle occupants, including an incident in Florida on Sept. 29.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating whether the recalls of vehicles with faulty Takata air bags — at least 7.8 million since 2013 — should be expanded. It sent letters to 10 major automakers on Wednesday urging them to move faster to fix recalled vehicles and conduct further testing.

NHTSA said Takata agreed to quadruple its testing of returned airbags to assist the investigation.

"In addition, they agreed to add two new production lines by the beginning of next year. However, it’s unclear yet, whether that would be sufficient to meet demand. We’ve requested details in writing, so we can hold them to these commitments and evaluate how much further they may need to go," NHTSA said.

"Takata has not reached out to additional air bag suppliers due to concern for quality issues, but is aware that some manufacturers are seeking new suppliers. We made it clear we will evaluate if their quality argument is valid. We are also reaching out to other suppliers and manufacturers to discuss the potential and risks of having those suppliers provide replacement airbags," the safety agency said.

Members of Congress have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate, and some are calling for the regional recalls — now limited to high-humidity areas — to be expanded nationwide. Honda air bags account for 5.1 million of those vehicles.

Foxx said as a department it makes sense “to periodically look at our practices and match those against what’s going in the marketplace and also what’s make sure it makes sense.”

He called the review typical, but a “deeper dive ... based on where we are in the agency and taking a look of where we want to be.” He said the review will also look at NHTSA’s legal authority and resources.

Foxx wants to make sure the department is “asking tougher questions of ourselves” than others like Congress and other stakeholders. Foxx didn’t offer any new timetable for naming a permanent NHTSA chief, repeating his comments from last week that a decision will be “soon.”

More than 16 million cars and trucks with Takata air bags have been recalled worldwide since 2008 by 11 major automakers.

Toyota has warned owners of 247,000 vehicles recalled last week not to drive them until they’re fixed. If it doesn’t have parts, Toyota will deactivate the passenger air bag and hang a sign warning people not to use the front seat. General Motors Co. is not deactivating air bags but will provide loaner vehicles if parts are not available.