Tags: Takata | Air Bag Flaw | Death | Japan

Japan's Takata Apologizes for Air Bag Flaw as Sixth Death Revealed

Thursday, 20 November 2014 01:17 PM

An executive for Takata Corp., the company that produced faulty air bags linked to the deaths of motorists, apologized at a U.S. Senate hearing as two lawmakers told of a sixth fatality they say is also related.

“We are deeply sorry and anguished about each of the reported instances in which a Takata air bag has not performed as designed and a driver or passenger has suffered personal injuries or death,” Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata’s senior vice president in charge of global quality assurance, said in his testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Takata acknowledges three deaths, and two others are still being investigated, Shimizu told senators at the hearing today. He didn’t address revelations of a sixth death.

Before the hearing, a woman told reporters her sister in Arizona died of injuries from a 2003 accident involving a Subaru Impreza with Takata air bags. The death raises to five the number of U.S. fatalities tied to air bag inflators suspected of spewing shrapnel when deployed in a crash. The death of a pregnant woman in Malaysia also has been blamed on the air bags.

Takata and at least 10 automakers including Honda Motor Co. and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG are under pressure from Congress and regulators to expand and accelerate the recall of vehicles with faulty air bag inflators that may spew shrapnel when deployed in a crash.

Rental Cars

Piecemeal recalls of almost 8 million cars over two years left drivers unsure about whether their air bags were prone to malfunction, and when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to inform the public last month it issued a consumer advisory with erroneous information about the cars affected and directed people to an inoperable website.

Automakers need to provide rental cars for models that can’t be immediately fixed because of “the fear that grips the public,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.

About 6 percent of affected vehicles recalled by 10 carmakers have been repaired, according to Bloomberg News calculations based on figures provided to NHTSA. Honda and Toyota Motor Corp., which have called back the most cars, each disclosed lower remedy rates in letters on NHTSA’s website.

300,000 Kits

“We are currently producing more than 300,000 replacement kits per month and will be increasing those production levels beginning in January,” Shimizu said. He said production will reach as many as 450,000 parts a month starting in January.

David Friedman, the deputy administrator for NHTSA, voiced his concerns about the growing public anxiety in late October, when he wrote to Tokyo-based Takata to say he was “deeply troubled” by the “erosion of public confidence in a proven life-saving technology.”

NHTSA has been without an administrator since David Strickland stepped down in January. Throughout the year, which included managing the GM ignition-switch recall, NHTSA has been run by Friedman. The White House yesterday said it plans to nominate Mark Rosekind, a scientist of human fatigue, to run the agency.

The Takata defect involves inflators that when exposed to consistently high humidity may deploy too forcefully, breaking metal components within the device.

Arizona Death

At a news conference arranged by Democratic Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kim Kopf said her sister, Charlene Weaver, was in an accident in Arizona on Nov. 1, 2003, in a 2004 Subaru Impreza. She died five days later from skull fractures and brain hemorrhages, Kopf said, according to an account provided by Eben Burnham-Snyder, a Markey spokesman.

The death is notable because Arizona wasn’t covered by the initial recalls, which were done mainly in U.S. cities and regions with high humidity, such as southern Florida and Gulf Coast communities. NHTSA reversed course on Nov. 18 after months of allowing regional recalls, demanding one broader nationwide repair campaign after a recent incident showed the problem may not be confined to high-humidity areas.

Takata pushed back, saying diverting replacement parts for a national recall from specific areas where they’re needed may put “lives at risk.”

Honda, Takata’s biggest customer, said it’s instructed dealerships to repair vehicles outside regions covered by its recall campaigns “at the request of concerned customers.” Honda said there are 45 injuries linked to the flaws in driver’s side air bags.

Alpha Parts

The air bag inflators are part of a group that Takata calls the Alpha group, according to written testimony from Scott Kunselman, senior vice president and head of Vehicle Safety & Regulatory Compliance at Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV’s Chrysler Group. Chrysler models are equipped with inflators Takata says are part of the different design known as the Beta population, not the Alpha, he said.

Chrysler has had one incident in southern Florida in October 2013 where a driver’s side air bag deployment of a Beta airbag caused an injury, Kunselman said in his testimony. In May of this year, Takata informed Chrysler of four similar incidents in other automakers’ vehicles using the Beta style inflator, he said.

The Beta inflators have deployed properly more than 10,000 times in Chrysler vehicles, including 830 in regions with high humidity that is suspected to contribute to the air bag failures, with only the one failure in Florida, he said in the testimony.

Whistle-Blower Law

Senator John Thune, the committee’s senior Republican who will become chairman in January, said he’ll introduce legislation to encourage whistle-blowers to share information with regulators about potential safety issues. The law would allow automaker employees to share in any penalties, like similar programs involving the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service.

“If there are potential whistle-blowers with important information who can help NHTSA identify more defects, we want them to come forward so these problems can be identified early in the process,” Thune said. “I think we would all agree it’s better to address a problem before injuries and deaths occur.”

Senator Claire McCaskill, who presided over three hearings on GM’s ignition-switch recall woes earlier this year, has called for the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against Takata. A federal grand jury has already subpoenaed Takata for documents and there are active investigations being conducted by NHTSA and Congress.

“We have an industry that fears no consequences for not complying with the law, companies more focused on defending themselves against private litigation rather than promoting safety, and a regulator that lacks both the resources and technical expertise to effectively do its job,” McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said.

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An executive for Takata Corp., the company that produced faulty air bags linked to the deaths of motorists, apologized at a U.S. Senate hearing as two lawmakers told of a sixth fatality they say is also related.
Takata, Air Bag Flaw, Death, Japan
Thursday, 20 November 2014 01:17 PM
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