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Airbag recalls show that NHTSA needs to do much more to keep drivers safe

Auto manufacturers are now recalling millions of vehicles with defective airbags from the supplier Takata. There have been so many recalls in the past few years that it is easy to just view this as more of the same. It's not. These recalls are not just for one automobile manufacturer but cover at least 11 separate vehicle manufacturers, including Honda, Acura, BMW, Ford, Lexus, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Infiniti, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Saab, Subaru and Toyota. Further, these are not just airbags that might fail to deploy and fail to protect passengers in the event of a crash. They cause serious injury and death in otherwise survivable crashes by exploding with so much force that they break the metal canister containing the airbag and propel metal shards. At least 4 people have been killed and 100 others injured by metal shards from airbag canisters and more deaths and injuries will likely be linked to the airbags.

How could the same extraordinarily dangerous defect exist in all these different vehicle brands and in over 14 million vehicles? A major part of the problem was that almost all major automobile manufacturers relied on just one supplier, Takata, for the same critical component. If airbags had been made by different suppliers, then the same problem would not have affected such a massive number of cars. Replacement parts could have been available earlier instead of car buyers with dangerous airbags now waiting because one supplier is unable to produce enough parts quickly.

A truly mind-boggling part of all of this is the recent revelation that over 10 years ago, several Takata employees investigated the problem of exploding airbags projecting shrapnel. Takata knew that the airbags could kill but destroyed the parts tested and the data. The automobile manufacturers need to have more control over the suppliers. If Takata did not have such a large share of the market, there may have been a better chance that the problem would have been stopped earlier.

Not only was the industry overly reliant on a single supplier for a critical part, but that supplier is based in Japan and not in the United States. Did U.S. authorities have enough control and ability to inspect the manufacturing processes of an overseas company that controlled a substantial part of the airbag manufacturing? Probably not, but that likely would not have changed the outcome here. The secret tests in 2008 by Takata employees where the parts and data were destroyed did not take place at Takata headquarters in Japan but in Michigan.

The automobile manufacturers here, especially Honda, should have detected the problem and reported it. Honda was aware of the problem with the airbags for a decade, and issued a very limited number of recalls for the issue, but failed to tell NHTSA that the recalls were because airbag ruptures had caused injuries and deaths. Honda failed to take seriously its duty to make sure its vehicles were safe. This is unfortunately an all too common occurrence with manufacturers lately.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA allowed this to happen because it shirked its responsibility as the nation's top enforcer of vehicle safety. An investigation into the airbag recalls was opened in 2009 by NHTSA but closed due to insufficient information only after six months, and when Takata offered additional documents, NHTSA said it did not need the additional documents because the inquiry had been closed. Until recent publicity, NHTSA let manufacturers decide whether they wanted to respond to the question of what a manufacturer believed caused a fatal accident. NHTSA has been far too deferential to car makers and has spent about the same amount of money on the inflated and meaningless star rating system that only helps manufacturers market their vehicle as it spends on investigations.

There are several changes that could make such a broad recall affecting millions of vehicles across manufacturers less likely. As consumers, we need to call out Honda for its actions. Toyota and GM were both extremely slow to respond to the ignition defects and unintended acceleration, but have received a great deal of negative publicity and are paying millions of dollars in efforts to atone for their mistakes.

In contrast, Honda's reputation has barely suffered as a result of the airbag recalls. While the recalls are from a multitude of car makers, Honda was the manufacturer that initially pushed the relationship with Takata and relied on Takata for airbags. Further, Honda had the opportunity to recognize and correct the problem early on before it affected many vehicles and manufacturers, but instead, Honda chose to provide only minimal reporting to NHTSA and hide the problem with individual confidential settlements. Honda must be held accountable for its role in allowing defective airbags to continue to injury and kill drivers.

The timeline for the airbag recalls shows that NHTSA simply is not up to the task of challenging manufacturers to protect consumers. NHTSA needs to stop spending half of its budget and resources on the star ratings system that is simply marketing for car makers. The agency could use more funds to thoroughly spot and investigate potential safety problems, but this will not be fixed with just money. The initial investigation into the airbag recalls was closed after only six months and when Takata came forward with more documents, NHTSA responded that they were not necessary because the investigation had been closed. Further, the head of NHTSA just this year did not know when testifying before Congress that NHTSA could subpoena manufacturers to force them to turn over documents. NHTSA is far too cozy with the manufacturers and must change its culture to recognize that its primary role is to protect the safety of consumers and not to coddle car manufacturers. NHTSA needs to do more than simply ask politely for manufacturers and parts suppliers to issue recalls. NHTSA has the power to order recalls without manufacturer or supplier consent and needs to exercise that power.

No company can manufacture a 100% safe car, but consumers deserve to know that car makers will not continue to sell cars if they discover that a car has a dangerous defect. NHTSA needs to investigate and force car makers to fix vehicles with known defective parts that have cause unnecessary deaths and injuries.

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