By Craig Trudell and Jeff Green, Bloomberg News
TOKYO/DETROIT (Dec. 3, 2014) — Airbag maker Takata Corp.'s rejection of demands to recall vehicles across the U.S. sets the stage for a confrontation with members of Congress critical of its response to potentially deadly defects.
Takata snubbed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Dec. 2 in refusing to expand recalls beyond high-humidity areas, where four motorists have died and about 8 million cars have been called back. The company has said that widening the driver-side airbag safety campaigns would aggravate the shortage of replacement air bags and prolong the wait for repairs.
“NHTSA received Takata's disappointing response to our demand for a national recall of certain driver's side airbags,” Deputy Administrator David Friedman said in an emailed statement. “Takata shares responsibility for keeping drivers safe and we believe anything short of a national recall does not live up to that responsibility.”
NHTSA is not yet advocating a national recall of passenger-side airbags.
Takata's refusal to comply with NHTSA's ultimatum comes as Executive Vice President Hiroshi Shimizu is scheduled to testify today in a second congressional inquiry in as many weeks. Toyota Motor Corp. and other customers have called for independent testing to supplement Takata's investigation and a Mexican regulator urged the airbag maker to take additional safety measures at its lone factory making replacement kits for the U.S.
NHTSA is reviewing Takata's response and deciding on its next steps, Mr. Friedman said. The regulator had told the company that failure to declare a recall of driver's side airbag inflators that was “nationwide in scope” could lead the agency to force a call back and impose fines of $7,000 per violation.
“If Takata continues to stonewall on this recall, NHTSA is going to take them to court and their customers are going to leave them in droves,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington research group. “I don't see a winning scenario in this for Takata to fight a national recall.”
NHTSA has said Takata's airbag inflators may malfunction if exposed to consistently high humidity by deploying with too much force, breaking apart metal pieces and striking passengers. After four related deaths in Honda Motor Co. models in the U.S., one fatal accident in Malaysia that killed a pregnant woman and reports of inflator ruptures in areas with lower humidity, NHTSA gave Takata an ultimatum last month.
In response, Takata said its airbag testing has found no problems with inflators outside high-humidity areas, according to Hitoshi Sano, head of investor relations for the Tokyo-based company.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner will run a new independent panel that will audit Takata's production and provide recommendations for safer airbag inflators. The company also hired two other former U.S. transportation secretaries as advisers to help overhaul operations.