Manufacturers face grilling on Capitol Hill over faulty air bags

On Capitol Hill, auto executives face a grilling over faulty air bags

Fallout from a nationwide recall of potentially lethal air bags will reach Capitol Hill Thursday when an executive from the firm that manufactured the faulty safety devices faces a congressional inquiry.

Hiroshi Shimizu, head of quality assurance at Takata Corp., which manufactured the recalled air bags, will join executives from Honda and Chrysler to testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. They will discuss the nationwide recall of vehicles featuring air bags that risk exploding with too much force, sending metal debris flying into drivers and passengers.

Government regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Tuesday that they would be calling for a nationwide recall on all vehicles equipped with the problematic air bags. They had pushed for a series of regional recalls of Takata air bags beginning 18 months ago.

“We now know that millions of vehicles must be recalled to address defective Takata air bags and our aggressive investigation is far from over,” said David Friedman, the agency’s deputy administrator, in a statement announcing the recall.

The NHTSA recall, which initially targeted an estimated 7 million vehicles in humid areas of the country, now spans millions more cars from 10 major manufacturers throughout the nation.

The agency contacted Takata and the affected manufacturers this week, according to the recall announcement, stating that if the companies did not act, regulators would take legal action to ensure a recall.

“We will continue to fully cooperate with any inquiries or requests by the relevant governmental authorities or with our automotive manufacturer customers in carrying out the recalls and any other actions in order to ensure the safety and security of our product users,” Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada said in a statement earlier this month.

The defective air bags are being blamed for at least two deaths. Investigators initially believed that the air bag issue was linked to warm climates, because many of the recalled vehicles were purchased in southeastern states, but they now believe the risk may be nationwide based on a recent incident outside of the recall area.

Regulators this week also pushed Takata to disclose ingredients in the chemicals used to activate their faulty air bags, stating that the company has acknowledged changing the chemicals in newer devices.

Also testifying Thursday is Stephanie Erdman of Destin, Fla., who had metal shards embed in her face after the air bag in her Honda Civic exploded. 

Takata and Honda, which used the air bags in many of its cars, face at least two class-action lawsuits over the defect. The lawsuits allege that the companies had prior knowledge of the risk associated with the air bags yet did not act. One of the two suits alleges that Takata executives were aware of the problem 13 years ago, and that Honda became aware of the risk in 2004.  

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