WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- Honda Motor Co. asked a third party to determine whether the automaker underreported fatality and injury claims to the U.S. government, which is investigating air-bag failures with potentially deadly defects.
The third-party audit began in September and Honda will soon share its findings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company said in an e-mailed statement.
Honda disclosed the audit after The Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group, said Wednesday the company didn’t report at least two injury-and-death incidents to NHTSA and called for the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation.
Honda said it excluded verbal claims of fatalities and injuries in reports to NHTSA until last month, a practice it says accounted substantially for the fewer reported incidents compared with other automakers. The Center for Auto Safety said Honda’s failure to share the information hampered the U.S. government’s oversight and efforts to spot auto-defect patterns.
“The damage to their reputation could be very big,” Seiji Sugiura, an auto analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center, said by phone. Honda “should take responsible action, especially in the U.S., because it’s their most important market.”
The issues being raised center on Takata Corp. -- a major supplier of air-bag inflators to Honda, Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. -- and how the car companies have responded to defects with the components. Honda is the biggest customer of Japan-based Takata and has said it’s called back 6 million vehicles for problems with air bags in nine recalls since 2008.
A NHTSA spokeswoman said the agency is in contact with Honda regarding “concerns about their EWR reporting, and is reviewing information to determine compliance. Based on NHTSA’s open investigation, the agency will take appropriate action, including expanding the scope of the recall if warranted.”
Honda said it has provided NHTSA detailed information relating to all known ruptures of Takata airbag inflators. The company also said that current law does not require manufacturers to report verbal death-and-injury claims.
Honda failed to notify NHTSA of several air-bag incidents that led to deaths and lawsuits, the Center for Auto Safety said in its letter to David Friedman, the agency’s deputy administrator. The Washington-based group cited a 2009 fatality and an August 2013 incident resulting in serious injury that weren’t included in Honda’s early warning reports.
Automakers are required to file quarterly reports to NHTSA about fatalities, injuries, lawsuits, warranty claims and customer complaints under a 2000 law. The safety agency is supposed to analyze Early Warning Reports to spot trends suggestive of safety defects as soon as possible.
“The whole purpose is to get to major defects quicker,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said in an interview. “You can’t protect the public if a company doesn’t turn over EWR reports.”
General Motors Co. reported 1,716 early-warning death and and injury claims to NHTSA last year, while Toyota logged 1,774, according to Ditlow’s group. Honda during that same period reported 28, the center said. In the first quarter of 2014, GM reported 505, Toyota 377 and Honda 6, it said.
“It is our understanding that some manufacturers choose to include these types of verbal claims, and that these constitute the majority of the injury-and-death claims that they report to the NHTSA,” Honda’s U.S. unit said in the e-mailed statement. “We believe this practice accounts for the vast majority of the difference between the total number of injury-and-death claims reported by Honda compared to certain other manufacturers.”
Senators ask questions
Separately, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote to NHTSA today expressing alarm over the agency’s use of limited “regional” recalls to address defects like the Takata airbags.
The Takata airbag issues have prompted Toyota, Subaru, Honda, BMW and other automakers to recall or inspect millions of vehicles, sometimes through national recalls and sometimes through regional campaigns.
“The wide range of automaker response to the potential safety defect in Takata airbags is puzzling and inconsistent,” the Senators wrote in their letter to NHTSA.
Noting the Center for Auto Safety allegations against Honda, Markey and Blumenthal asked NHTSA for additional information about how the agency ensures compliance with reporting requirements.
“We are concerned that NHTSA has not made real efforts to determine whether automakers have complied with this requirement to alert the public to potentially deadly defects,” they said in a statement.
In a statement, the NHTSA spokeswoman said public safety is NHTSA’s top priority and that the agency is working to establish a “new normal” with automakers when it comes to safety defects.
“That’s why NHTSA launched an aggressive investigation into Takata airbags and urged all of the affected automakers to immediately conduct recalls in areas with the highest known risk despite the uncertainties in this case,” the spokeswoman said.
Ryan Beene contributed to this report.