Politics & Government

Government increases air bag warning to 7.8M vehicles

The congressional investigators who dug into fatal defects in General Motors and Toyota cars are now asking U.S. safety regulators to brief them about potentially deadly air bags.

Staff from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Michigan Republican Fred Upton, requested an explanation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about recalls of Takata Corp. air bags linked to four deaths.

That came a day after U.S. regulators expanded the number of vehicles they said were vulnerable by 3 million, to 7.8 million, and GM joined Toyota in warning people not to sit in front passenger seats. While NHTSA is urging people to be cautious, its website for checking your car’s status has been overwhelmed by heavy traffic.

“Auto safety continues to be a top priority for the committee, and our staff is continuing to monitor a number of issues before NHTSA, including these air-bag recalls,” according to the committee’s statement. “Staff has requested a briefing with NHTSA on the status of the Takata recalls and the agency’s investigation.”

Congressional scrutiny adds to the pressure on Takata and on automakers such as Honda, Nissan, GM and Toyota as recalls increase for air bags that can inflate with excessive force, sending metal fragments into vehicle occupants and causing death and serious injury. Honda alone has recalled 6 million vehicles globally since 2008 because of the flaw.

A spokesman for NHTSA wasn’t immediately available to comment. The NHTSA website Tuesday suffered “intermittent network issues” as owners searched to see if their vehicles are among those recalled.

Honda has acknowledged two deaths related to the air-bag defect and is investigating two more. Toyota and GM this week advised occupants of unrepaired vehicles to stay out of the front passenger seat until the parts are replaced.

“This undermines the credibility or confidence in driving, generally, and in cars,” Ashvin Chotai, managing director of researcher Intelligence Automotive Asia, said by phone. “There’s very little consumers can do about it. Of course they feel less confident about sitting in a car and they'll be extra cautious, but beyond that, what can you do?”

The latest developments of the air-bag crisis led to the biggest blow yet to the shares of Takata, which plunged 23 percent yesterday in Tokyo trading, the steepest decline since the company’s 2006 listing. The Tokyo-based company, which started in the 1930s as a textile manufacturer, has seen its market value drop by about 100 billion yen ($930 million) this year.

Takata said in a statement Wednesday that any additional costs beyond the 45 billion yen one-time charge booked in its first quarter “should be very limited.” Its shares erased gains after NHTSA expanded its tally of recalled cars.

A top Toyota executive offered support for how Takata is handling the safety crisis, days after expanding its own recalls for the second time in four months.

“They’re doing what they’re supposed to do: understand the root cause, and then learn from it and reflect and put countermeasures in place,” Steve St. Angelo, head of Toyota’s Latin American operations and former chief quality officer for North America, said Wednesday in Tokyo. “There’s nobody in our business that’s perfect.”

Honda, Nissan and Mazda have yet to follow Toyota in issuing warnings in the U.S. against sitting in front- passenger seats, a step that the Japanese carmakers took in their domestic market in June.

Toyota extended this approach to the United States after Takata shared data about inflators returned as part of the vehicle recalls. The world’s largest automaker this week called back 247,000 vehicles, including some models of the Toyota Corolla, Matrix, Sequoia and Tundra, made from 2001 to 2004.

Most of the vehicles were subject to recalls by Toyota in June this year or May 2013, said John Hanson, a U.S. spokesman for the company.

“We’re prepared to do whatever the owner asks us to do,” he said. “If the owner is afraid to drive the car, we'll come and get it.”

Toyota began issuing the public warning against sitting in front-passenger seats of unfixed cars as NHTSA stepped up efforts to reach affected vehicle owners.

NHTSA issued a statement on Oct. 20 telling owners to “act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags,” adding there should be particular urgency in areas of high humidity such as Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Honda is still examining air-bag inflators that have been replaced as part of its recalls of 5.05 million vehicles in the U.S. tied to Takata air bags the past two years, said Chris Martin, a spokesman for the automaker.

“We will act appropriately based on the results of this investigation,” Martin said by phone. Honda is Takata’s biggest customer and has had nine recalls related to the flaw since 2008. The carmaker owns 1.2 percent of Takata.

Nissan doesn’t plan to disable passenger-side air bags in the U.S. and hasn’t received instructions from NHTSA to do so, said Chris Keeffe, a spokesman. Mazda also doesn’t plan to change its U.S. recall strategy, spokeswoman Keiko Yano said by phone.

Motorists wondering whether their cars are subject to a recall usually can type their vehicle identification numbers into the government’s website, www.safercar.gov, but the site has experienced “intermittent network issues” and some functions have been taken down. Brian Farber, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, couldn’t immediately answer questions about the site’s outages.

While Takata is at the center of the U.S. government’s air- bag investigation, NHTSA also is probing how the car companies responded to defects with the components.

The Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group in the U.S., accused Honda last week of failing to report all air-bag-related injuries and deaths to a government database as required. The center’s Oct. 15 letter to David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, also called for the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into Honda’s reporting.

Honda asked a third party to begin an audit last month of potential inaccuracies in the quarterly Early Warning Reports it’s required to file to NHTSA. The automaker said in an Oct. 16 statement that it will share results of the audit with the regulator soon.

The Florida Highway Patrol said last week it’s investigating a fatality involving a Honda Accord driver stemming from neck wounds allegedly caused by an inflating air bag.

Honda said Oct. 16 it’s also examining whether a faulty air bag was to blame for the death of a man who crashed his Honda- made Acura sedan in a California parking lot.

Two other deaths in Honda vehicles were caused by faulty air bags, the automaker said.

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra appeared before the U.S. House committee earlier this year to explain how the automaker failed for more than a decade to fix an ignition switch flaw linked to 29 deaths. In 2010, Jim Lentz, the head of U.S. sales for Toyota, appeared before the committee to explain a flaw that could cause unintended acceleration. Toyota later paid a record $1.2 billion fine and admitted it misled consumers.

The committee has no plans for an air-bag hearing at this point, just the briefings, according to the statement.