AUTOS

Honda says Houston death may be linked to faulty airbag

Honda is looking into what may the fourth death caused by an exploding airbag in its cars

Honda Motor Co. said another death could be linked to faulty airbags in its vehicles.

The automaker said Thursday it is looking into a crash of a 2002 Honda Accord on Jan. 18, in Houston. The driver’s side airbag inflator in the car may have ruptured, sending shrapnel into the cabin and killing the driver, who the company did not name.

Honda and other automakers are having problems with inflators made by auto parts supplier Takata Corp. The inflators, which rely on an explosive charge, can deploy with too much force and send metal shrapnel into the passenger cabin. The faulty airbags are linked to multiple deaths and are responsible for recalls of more than 20 million vehicles globally.

The vehicles affected include those made by Honda -- Takata's biggest customer -- as well as Nissan, Subaru, Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Mitsubishi and Mazda.

There are at least five deaths in the U.S. and abroad caused by the faulty part.

Honda has confirmed three deaths and 52 injuries in the U.S. caused by driver’s side Takata airbag inflator ruptures. It is also looking at a fatality in California that, like the Houston death, may have been caused by the problem.

The vehicle involved in the Houston crash was included in a 2011 recall for the driver’s front airbag inflator, Honda said, adding that it does not believe the recall repair was completed on the Accord.

“Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the family of the driver during this difficult time,” Honda said in a statement.

“Since this tragic event occurred very recently, no official cause of death has yet been determined by local authorities,” it said. “Honda has not yet been able to inspect the vehicle and airbag components in order to confirm if an inflator rupture occurred in this crash. We are currently working with representatives of the driver’s family to gain the access necessary to conduct a comprehensive investigation.”

The Houston death was confirmed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) reintroduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act on Thursday.

"This legislation rewards whistle-blowers who bring information exposing serious consumer safety hazards in the auto industry to light,” said Thune.

In introducing their bill, the senators referenced the problems with the Takata airbags and General Motors' failure to recall a faulty ignition switch for at least a decade. The GM switch is now linked to at least 50 deaths.

Honda said it is urging owners of Honda and Acura vehicles affected by the Takata airbag inflator recalls to get their vehicles repaired at authorized dealers as soon as possible.

Recalled but unrepaired vehicles have become a growing problem on U.S. roads as automakers increase the number of vehicles they are calling back for safety defects.

Automakers recalled about 60 million vehicles in the U.S. last year, almost double the previous record set a decade earlier. But as many as 35 million of these vehicles have not been repaired, according to some estimates -- even though many have defects that have been linked to multiple fatalities.

Commenting on the problem last month, Clarence Ditlow, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety said, “There's no doubt someone else is going to die.”

"Any vehicle that is unrepaired is a risk," said David Friedman, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's deputy administrator.

Honda said it has reported the fatality to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Earlier this year, the agency fined Honda $70 million for failing to report deaths and injuries involving its vehicles in a timely matter. The fine was the largest ever levied on an automaker by the safety agency.

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