Tags: Takata | air bag | flaw | death

Takata Apologizes for Air Bag Flaw as Sixth Death Revealed

Thursday, 20 November 2014 05:29 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, senior vice president in charge of global quality assurance, said in testimony today to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Takata acknowledges three deaths, and two others are still being investigated, Shimizu told senators. 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 bags.

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 yesterday.

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 General Motors Co. ignition-switch recall, Friedman has run NHTSA. 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, Beta

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 model caused an injury, Kunselman said in his testimony. In May, 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 malfunction.

Chrysler Action

Chrysler made the decision to replace the air-bag inflators in 371,000 vehicles in June, though it won’t notify affected consumers until Dec. 19, when replacement parts are available, Kunselman said.

Nelson criticized the auto industry for its varied response, with some companies not even calling their fixes a recall.

Friedman, the current head of NHTSA, said he had “serious concerns” about the automakers’ responses.

Regulators have had to push Chrysler in previous cases to accelerate production of parts and get notices out to consumers, Friedman said.

“I don’t accept that there’s any reason they wait to notify consumers until they have the part,” Friedman said.

Takata won’t meet its goal of having replacement parts for all recalled vehicles in the high-humidity states by July 1, 2015, unless it more than doubles production, to 1 million inflators a month, according to an analysis by Scott Upham at Valient Automotive Market Research. That would entail adding four or five additional production lines at the company’s factory in Monclova, Mexico, he said.

Whistle-Blower Law

“A nationwide recall of both Takata driver and passenger inflators would affect over 18 million vehicles globally and require over 36 million inflator replacement kits,” Upham said.

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
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2014-29-20
Thursday, 20 November 2014 05:29 PM
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