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Airbags are a major defense for car passengers in an accident. But airbags supplied by the Takata Corporation to several automakers have been found to rupture or explode after a front crash, causing serious injuries and two deaths. Recalls related to the defect have now exceeded 14 million. Jeffrey Brown talks to David Shepardson of The Detroit News about how regulators are tackling the problem.
General Motors' major series of recalls has so far been the defining consumer safety story in the auto industry this year. But now, to add to that, there are concerns being raised around air bags on the part of Honda and 10 other car manufacturers that have prompted more recalls, and a focus on disclosure, regulation and safety.
Jeffrey Brown has the story.
As with GM, the problems may date back a decade or more. In this case, it's the rupturing or explosion of air bags that injured drivers and are linked with two deaths. The air bags are supplied by Takata Corporation. Which makes them for automakers around the world.
Honda first began recalling a few thousand as early as 2009. This year, recalls related to the air bags have grown dramatically and now exceed 14 million overall, six million of them by Honda, while Toyota, BMW, and Nissan have also recalled large numbers of cars.
David Shepardson of The Detroit News joins us once again.
Welcome back, David.
First, remind us what the problem is with the air bags.
DAVID SHEPARDSON, The Detroit News:
These are air bags that are deploying in a frontal crash. And rather than just getting the pillow you see in a standard air bag, they are rupturing because of the high force, and in some cases sending shrapnel or pieces of metal, and causing serious injuries and, as you said, reports of two deaths.
As we reported here, it was found first a long time ago. It has taken a long time to get to this number of recalls. What's — kind of quickly bring us up to date. What's been happening in that area?
Well, it's been a real puzzle both for Honda and for regulators, in part because you had two different plants, one in Mexico, one in Washington State, that had two different issues with these air bag inflators that prompted, you know, starting with Honda to recall these vehicles.
Then it grew to almost a dozen worldwide. In fact, the government is still deciding whether the recalls that have been done so far are enough. And there may — still may be more vehicles to be recalled. And that goes to the issue of, is — it's hard to figure out exactly how many vehicles and which specific air bags should be covered by this.
And that, of course, has also led to the question as to whether Honda and others have done enough to get out the word or have tried to keep it quiet.
Well, as is standard procedure in the auto industry, the settlements — and Honda and some of the other auto companies have settled suits involving these air bags — but the settlements are confidential.
The government receives reports of these settlements through something called the early warning database, but, remember, when you have got six million crashes a year, 30,000 people who die, the — and a relatively small number of people for the government investigating, it's often hard to find a needle in the haystack, as they would say.
Well, that of course leads to the other side of this, questions about the regulators. How much are they looking? How much are they able to look?
Well, in fact, the — the Senate Commerce Committee is having a hearing Tuesday to decide, look, the number of cars sold has grown and the complexity of cars has grown with computers and more electronics.
And the government is — the number of people investigating these vehicles is relatively stable. And there's a real question from a lot of senators, saying, does the agency need to be beefed up and have more tools to force auto companies to recall vehicles faster?
The company involved, the Japanese company, is supplying a lot of automakers.
Is that — that's representative of changes we have seen in the auto industry, right?
We had the crisis in 2009, which caused — spurred dozens of major suppliers to file for bankruptcy. And, as a result, some of the suppliers who survived got bigger and bigger. And, therefore, you have these — this one inflator part that in the past may have only led to recalls by one or two companies, but, as a result of the market dominance of the company, you had a dozen companies in the U.S., in Germany, around the world.
So it goes to the fact that commonality of parts is leading to much bigger recalls in some cases.
And what is Honda itself saying at this point about where things stand and its own culpability?
They issued a statement today, saying, look, they investigated, they never put people's safety at risk, but it took them a long time to figure out what the problem is. And they said they're committed to recalling vehicles if they find they're unsafe.
You said there's a hearing coming up. What else happens next? What do we look for?
Well, the government in June pushed the companies to recall vehicles. And, in fact, some of the automakers went ahead and did it, even though they said they didn't need to.
So look for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to keep up the — its investigation to determine whether Honda acted properly and whether the recalls need to be expanded. And look for Congress to grapple with an issue of, does auto safety and — does it need reforms and does the law need more teeth?
All right, David Shepardson of The Detroit News, thank you again.
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