by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The string of high-profile vehicle recalls that have been announced this year should spur highway safety regulators to be more aggressive in overseeing the auto industry, a Senate Republican said Thursday.
“The troubling string of recalls this year should be a wake-up call,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said during a hearing about a recall of defective air bags that were produced by Japanese auto parts manufacturer Takata.
“I believe we can do a better job of addressing safety issues as they arise and holding automakers, their suppliers, and NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] accountable to their shared mission of ensuring safety on America’s roadways,” said Thune, who is poised to become chairman of the Senate committee that handles transportation issues in the next Congress.
Takata air bags were found to explode in some cases when they were deployed in humid conditions. Accidents involving the defective air bags have been linked to five deaths so far, and the recall of the faulty part has grown to include nearly 8 million cars.
Takata Senior Vice President For Global Quality Assurance Hiroshi Shimizu said his company was “deeply sorry” for the drivers who have been hurt in accidents that involved the faulty air bags.
“Even though millions of Takata air bags have inflated properly, saving lives and avoiding serious injuries in hundreds of thousands of accidents, any failure of an air bag to perform as designed in an automobile accident is incompatible with Takata’s standards for highest quality assurance,” Shimizu told the panel.
“We are deeply sorry and anguished about each of the reported instances in which a Takata air bag has not performed as designed and a driver or passenger has suffered personal injuries or death,” Shimizu said. “Our sincerest condolences go out to all those who have suffered in these accidents and to their families.”
Democrats in the Senate hearing on Thursday were adamant that auto companies like Takata need to do a better job informing drivers when they discover defective parts.
“Automakers need to get replacement parts so that airbags can be replaced, that needs to be sent to the dealers,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said. “And they need — because of people potentially driving around with a defective airbag in their steering wheel and dashboard — the dealers, the automobile makers need to provide a loaner vehicle or a rental car for those whose cars cannot be immediately fixed.”
Nelson and Thune said they would introduce bipartisan legislation to boost U.S. auto safety by increasing rewards for employees of car and part manufacturers who report defects to the federal government early.
Highway safety regulators in the Obama administration have come under fire for their oversight efforts after massive recalls at Takata and several other auto companies this year that involved parts that were first found to be defective years ago.
Lawmakers took the highway safety agency to task in the spring for its handling of recalls at General Motors that affected about two million vehicles. NHTSA officials were accused of failing to notice the trend of accidents involving GM’s faulty ignition switch for several years before the recall was issued in February.
Thune said Thursday that he had similar questions about Takata’s recall.
“This year, record fines have been levied against Toyota, GM and Hyundai,” he said. “Now, with the latest news of problems with Takata air bags, we are again faced with examining an apparent failure with serious safety consequences.
“Today we will be asking Takata, NHTSA, and other stakeholders increasingly familiar questions about how these faulty products made it into consumers’ vehicles, when the problem was first discovered, and what steps, if any, could have been taken sooner that may have saved lives or prevented injuries,” Thune continued.
The highway safety agency has been acting without a full-time administration for most of 2014 following the resignation of its former chief, David Strickland, at the beginning of the year.
Interim NHTSA Administrator David Friedman told lawmakers Thursday that overseeing the Takata airbag recall was “complicated.”
“The Takata air bag recall story is more complicated than most recalls because, to date, there have been multiple issues leading to recalls involving 10 auto manufacturers and over 10 million vehicles since 2008,” he said.
Friedman defended the highway safety agency’s actions since it became aware of the problems with Takata’s airbags.
“NHTSA began looking into this issue after connecting three separate consumer complaints of airbag ruptures from three different automakers,” Friedman said. “NHTSA staff identified that these three had a common supplier and common climatic conditions, and reached out to the supplier and automakers.”
A witness testifying about her experience with a faulty Takata air bag said she was not impressed with the either the company or the highway safety’s agency’s explanations at the hearing.
“I am honored to be here today to serve as the voice for the people who have been forever silenced because of the failure of companies to address the dangers of exploding airbags,” Stephanie Erdman said after naming several victims of fatal car crashes that involved defective Takata airbags.
“These companies say they have done everything they could,” Erdman continued. “They claim that they notified consumers as soon as they found out about the problem. That they expanded the recalls as they learned about each set of additional potentially affected vehicles just as soon as they could. I believe the facts show differently.”
Erdman said her September 2013 accident changed her life forever.
“I was driving my 2002 Honda Civic on Highway 98 West near Destin, Florida, on my way to get some groceries with a friend,” she said. “As I was driving, a car turned left in front of my Honda and we crashed.
“When the impact occurred, shrapnel from my car’s air bag inflator shot through the air bag cloth and embedded in my right eye and neck,” Erdman continued. “I was instantly blind on my right side. And then I felt gushing blood. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to bleed out.”
Erdman showed lawmakers a picture that was taken on the night of her accident with a piece of the air bag stuck in her eye.
“What happened to me was gruesome,” Erdman said. “The photo that the EMT took of me with the shrapnel in my eye is scary to look at. But I believe it is necessary to get the attention of those who have the ability to do something to stop this from happening to someone else.”