Takata Airbag Recall Questions Prompt DOT Investigation of NHTSA

26 Oct 2014 | Author: | No comments yet »

Administration Will Review Auto Safety Regulator.

The Department of Transportation will conduct a review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been criticized for its handling of the Takata airbag recall this past week, as well as other recalls this year, a senior administration official told ABC News. “The roll out of the safety advisory by NHTSA was not optimal, but what is most important right now is that a NHTSA-led investigation uncovered a very serious defect,” a DOT spokesperson said. “Impacted vehicle owners should have their cars immediately checked by their manufacturers. U.S. investigators, automakers and a parts supply company are trying to figure out why some automobile air bags inflate with too much force, blowing apart metal canisters and sending shards flying at drivers and passengers.The Obama administration is close to naming a top auto-safety regulator amid criticism of the agency’s handling of a large air-bag recall, which an administration official on Friday called “suboptimal.” The appointment, which would require Senate confirmation, comes as the officials are reviewing how the agency does its primary job of analyzing automotive risks to the public.

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a story we published on June 11, 2014, in the midst of General Motors’ recall of nearly 30 million cars. 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 official, who said he was offering background Friday for reporters on the condition he not be identified, broadly hinted there is much more to come on the recalls that ballooned earlier this week. There are more than seven million vehicles on US roads today equipped with airbags, made by the Takata Corporation, that may have faulty propellants, and have the potential to fire shrapnel into passengers when they inflate. Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images The agency that botched a campaign to publicize a potentially lethal air-bag defect affecting 7.8 million U.S. cars is reviewing its safety culture, according to a senior Obama administration official. Just this week, the agency, in an unusual warning, urged car owners to “act immediately” to have defective airbags repaired, but several automakers said they were not prepared to make the repairs, creating confusion among owners.

Blumenthal said drivers should be given loaner cars to drive while the airbags are being replaced, to make it as easy as possible for people to get the work done. “Disabling the airbags puts them in even greater danger so the only solution here is for a national recall with loaners provided to car owners at no cost to them,” the senator said. On Monday, the NHTSA published an urgent plea on its website for more than 4.7 million owners of vehicles with Takata airbags to immediately get the airbags replaced, as the owners had been directed in previous recall notices over the past two years. “The list below corrects the list that accompanied our October 20 advisory, which incorrectly included certain vehicles,” the NHTSA website says, noting that the numbers could change again.

An investigation by The New York Times in September showed that the agency had consistently been slow to identify problems, tentative to act and reluctant to use its full legal powers against companies. A growing number of air-bag recalls is raising doubts about whether the agency learned lessons on handling defect investigations after the bungling of the General Motors Co. ignition switch recalls. In the Takata case, for example, the federal regulators had stopped an investigation years earlier, saying there was “insufficient information” to suggest that Honda and Takata had failed to take timely action. Throughout the year, which included managing the GM ignition-switch recall now tied to 29 deaths, NHTSA has been run by its deputy administrator, David Friedman. More than 14 million cars have been recalled worldwide by Honda and 10 other automakers for the rupture hazard, including 11 million in the United States.

A: Dozens of models made by BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota dating to the 2001 model year are covered. At least three deaths and more than 30 injuries have been attributed to the faulty Takata airbags, which can rupture even in a minor accident, sending shrapnel into the car’s cabin. The government website that allowed owners to look up their cars for recall information by its vehicle identification number, or VIN, didn’t work. “Clearly the rollout of this recall did not happen perfectly,” the official said, citing an initially inaccurate number of vehicles involved and the VIN look-up-feature snafu.

Earlier this month Florida woman Hien Tran was killed in a mysterious auto accident that police initially treated like a homicide due to the apparent stab wounds on her neck. Friedman, N.H.T.S.A.’s acting director, testified before a Senate subcommittee that questioned him over the agency’s failure to act quickly and forcefully on evidence of defects in cars and accused him of deferring to the auto industry rather than standing up to it. NHTSA blamed the website problems on what it described as a “software change that affects how the system interacts with the Internet” and ruled out any traffic overload or hacking. When an automaker initiates a recall, it’s required to notify NHTSA and file a public report airing all the dirty details, including how it discovered the problem, who is affected, and how it plans to fix things. Because federal guidelines change slowly and old people still own cars, automakers must send those notifications as letters—in the mail!—to the registered owners of affected automobiles, then follow up with a postcard every three months for a year and a half to remind them to take care of the issue.

The automaker can also send notifications through its cars’ OnStar vehicle diagnostics system and via a monthly “state-of-the-car” email that customers can choose to receive. Problem is, those letters are easily and often ignored, or may never reach the current owner—especially if the car’s changed hands multiple times since it was first sold. Scott Hildebrand, a heating and air conditioning contractor in Bluffton, South Carolina, believes that if Toyota is recalling Corollas in Florida, it should recall the two in his driveway near Hilton Head. “There’s not much difference in the humidity between here and there,” he says. “If somebody in my family got hurt by it, yes, that would be a big problem.” Hildebrand is trying to find out if his cars have Takata air bags.

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