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Honda air-bag deaths draw scrutiny of Congress as recalls widen

The Takata building, an automotive parts supplier in Auburn Hills, Mich., is the site of the North American subsidiary of Japan-based Takata Corporation which supplies seat belts and airbags for the automotive industry.
The Takata building, an automotive parts supplier in Auburn Hills, Mich., is the site of the North American subsidiary of Japan-based Takata Corporation which supplies seat belts and airbags for the automotive industry. AP

The congressional investigators who dug into fatal defects in General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. cars are now asking U.S. safety regulators to brief them about potentially deadly air bags.

Staff from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Michigan Republican Fred Upton, said Wednesday that they had requested an explanation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about recalls of Takata Corp. air bags linked to four deaths.

That came a day after U.S. regulators expanded the number of vehicles they said were vulnerable by 3 million, to 7.8 million, and GM joined Toyota in warning people not to sit in front passenger seats. While NHTSA is urging people to be cautious, its website for checking your car’s status has been overwhelmed by heavy traffic.

“Auto safety continues to be a top priority for the committee, and our staff is continuing to monitor a number of issues before NHTSA, including these air-bag recalls,” according to the committee’s statement. “Staff has requested a briefing with NHTSA on the status of the Takata recalls and the agency’s investigation.”

Congressional scrutiny adds to the pressure on Takata and on automakers such as Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., GM and Toyota as recalls increase for air bags that can inflate with excessive force, sending metal fragments into vehicle occupants and causing death and serious injury. Honda alone has recalled 6 million vehicles globally since 2008 because of the flaw.

“Air bags were designed to improve safety and help save lives, which is why it’s so disconcerting to hear reports of this lifesaving tool posing a potential hazard to drivers,” Upton said in a statement. “Recalls continue to mount across the country, and drivers are losing confidence.”

Honda has acknowledged two deaths related to the air-bag defect and is investigating two more. Toyota and GM this week advised occupants of unrepaired vehicles to stay out of the front passenger seat until the parts are replaced.

“This undermines the credibility or confidence in driving, generally, and in cars,” Ashvin Chotai, managing director of researcher Intelligence Automotive Asia, said by phone. “There’s very little consumers can do about it. Of course they feel less confident about sitting in a car and they’ll be extra cautious, but beyond that, what can you do?”

The latest developments of the air-bag crisis led to the biggest blow yet to the shares of Takata, which plunged 23 percent on Oct. 21 in Tokyo, the steepest decline since the company’s 2006 listing. The Tokyo-based company, which started in the 1930s as a textile manufacturer, has seen its market value drop by about 100 billion yen ($930 million) this year.

Takata said in a statement that any additional costs beyond the 45 billion yen one-time charge booked in its first quarter “should be very limited.”

A top Toyota executive offered support for how Takata is handling the safety crisis, days after expanding its own recalls for the second time in four months.

“They’re doing what they’re supposed to do: understand the root cause, and then learn from it and reflect and put countermeasures in place,” Steve St. Angelo, head of Toyota’s Latin American operations and former chief quality officer for North America, said yesterday in Tokyo. “There’s nobody in our business that’s perfect.”

Honda, Nissan and Mazda Motor Corp. have yet to follow Toyota in issuing warnings in the U.S. against sitting in front- passenger seats, a step that the Japanese carmakers took in their domestic market in June.

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