FAULTY AIRBAG: A crash test of a 2002 Honda CR-V, one of the models subject to a recall to repair faulty Takata airbags. Image: AP / IIHS
WASHINGTON - Japan's Takata, maker of suspect air bags that have caused global vehicle recalls for six years, has rejected a demand by US federal regulators' for a nationwide recall of millions of airbags.
The rejection has set up a possible legal showdown and has left some drivers to wonder about the safety of their cars. The bags are also used in vehicles sold in South Africa.
Amid the stand-off, Honda decided to act on its own and recall cars in all 50 US states with the potentially defective equipment but other automakers have yet to make a decision.
At issue are bags whose inflators have been known to explode with so much force that the containing canisters have exploded and thrown - sometimes fatally - shard of metal into passengers' faces. At least five deaths and dozens of injuries worldwide have been linked to the defect.
Over the past six years Takata and 10 automakers issued a series of recalls covering eight-million cars in the US, mostly in high-humidity areas such as the Gulf Coast, because of evidence that moisture can cause the propellant to burn too quickly.
However after other incidents in California and North Carolina the US' National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began pressing for the recall of another eight-million vehicles across America -a demand that Takata flatly rejected.
Hiroshi Shimizu, Takata's senior vice-president for global quality assurance, told a House sub-committee on Capitol Hill: "There's not enough scientific evidence to change from a regional recall to a national recall."
Takata also contends that NHTSA has the authority to seek recalls only from automakers and makers of replacement parts, not from original parts suppliers - a position the NHTSA contests.
Shimizu insisted that the air bags were safe and said: "I would drive a car with a Takata airbag." "It's time for industry to step up," Friedman told lawmakers. "Until Takata and automakers act, affected drivers won't be protected."
However, David Friedman, an NHTSA deputy administrator, said he was "deeply disappointed" by Takata's response. The agency is now gathering proof that a recall is needed, which it will present at a public hearing. After that, NHTSA could order Takata to undertake a recall, and could take the company to court if it refuses. But Friedman acknowledged that could take months.
The stalemate is likely to add to the confusion among car owners, many of whom are already bewildered because some of the recalls have covered driver's-side airbags, while others applied to passenger-side airbags, and a few covered both. The NHTSA-demanded recalls would involve driver's-side airbags.
But for those outside the recall zone who want to know if their airbags are safe, things get trickier. It's difficult to tell if a car has a Takata airbag inflator. Car owners can try asking their dealer, but even they may not know. Honda is Takata's largest customer, but the company also made airbags for Ford, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW.
At Wednesday's (Dec 3 2014) hearing, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the panel's senior Democrat, said she has received letters from constituents "who are literally afraid to drive their cars."
WHAT TO DO?
Drivers whose cars have been recalled should have received notices in the mail. A driver can also key in the vehicle's identification number online or call the dealer to see if the car is covered.
Rick Schostek, executive vice-president of Honda North America, said Honda is acting even though Takata hasn't identified problems beyond the current recall areas. Honda didn't say how many vehicles will be recalled, but the recall includes its most popular vehicles, including the 2001-07 Accord and the 2002-06 CR-V SUV.
Lawmakers expressed frustration that, after a decade, Takata still isn't certain about the cause of the explosions. They also questioned whether the replacement airbags made by Takata will be safe. Takata said it has tested 1057 inflators taken from locations outside the high-humidity zone, and none of them ruptured.