NHTSA apologizes as scrutiny in airbag case grows
WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s top official, facing heightened scrutiny over the agency’s handling of a deadly airbag defect, apologized late Wednesday for publishing inaccurate information this week in the agency’s warnings about the defect and for technical glitches that made its online recall search tool largely inaccessible.
The warnings, which urged owners to “act immediately” to fix vehicles recalled for Takata airbags that may malfunction, incorrectly identified several models as being affected by the recalls and excluded others. The agency corrected the information, causing the number of recalled vehicles in the warning to grow from 4.7 million to 7.8 million and sparking confusion about the scope of the action.
“We greatly regret that the information provided in our initial safety advisory was inaccurate and that we have experienced significant problems with our website,” David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, said in a statement.
Overtones of GM case
Government scrutiny of the airbag defect, and of the response from regulators, is intensifying quickly as the Takata case takes on some of the same overtones as the General Motors ignition-switch crisis that erupted at the start of the year and put the state of auto safety in the spotlight.
Federal prosecutors are now investigating the Japanese supplier, according to The Wall Street Journal, while lawmakers are seeking more information on NHTSA’s investigation into Takata.
And today, a pair of vocal senators called on NHTSA to order a nationwide recall of vehicles potentially carrying the defective Takata airbags, which can spray metal fragments at a vehicle’s occupants when they deploy in a crash. The defect has been implicated in at least four U.S. deaths and more than 100 injuries in incidents reported nationally.
In his Wednesday statement, Friedman said the agency has “identified the problem” affecting Takata airbags and is making sure cars are recalled in parts of the country “where there is a demonstrated risk.” The agency has recently focused its Takata efforts on high-humidity regions, including U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico, suspecting that humidity is a factor in the malfunctioning.
“NHTSA has taken an aggressive approach to ensuring safety on our highways by forcing the recall of millions of vehicles with defective airbags at the beginning of an investigation that remains open,” Friedman said, referring to the investigation NHTSA began in June.
Pressure in Washington
In a letter today, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to clarify NHTSA’s Monday warning and harshly criticized NHTSA’s handling of the Takata recalls.
“We have become increasingly troubled and alarmed by the confusing and conflicting advice being issued by NHTSA, and the glacial pace of the agency’s response to this public safety threat,” the senators wrote.
Blumenthal and Markey, two of the most vocal safety advocates in Congress, were among the lawmakers who had grilled Friedman during a September oversight hearing about NHTSA’s role in the GM ignition switch recalls. At the time, Blumenthal accused the agency of “nodding off on safety.”
In their letter this week, the duo said they were “astonished” by NHTSA’s decision to let Toyota dealers disable airbags in recalled vehicles if replacements for the Takata inflators weren’t available, calling it an “extraordinarily troubling and potentially dangerous” policy step. They also questioned NHTSA’s decision to conduct recalls limited to regions of high humidity. They argued that all states have humid seasons and drivers who live outside the recall zone often travel to those areas.
Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., two of NHTSA’s harshest critics of late, each have asked for briefings on NHTSA’s Takata investigation and plan to meet with automakers to discuss supplier issues, spokespeople for the legislators said Wednesday.
McCaskill sits alongside Markey and Blumenthal on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In a September subcommittee hearing, she accused the agency of being slow to act on the GM ignition switch recall case and admonished Friedman for his reluctance to accept responsibility for the agency’s lapses.
Upton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee that earlier this year also held hearings into GM’s switch recalls. Following an investigation, the committee released a scathing report that accused NHTSA of failing to spot the defects despite having ample evidence of the flaw for several years.
“I urge drivers to heed NHTSA’s warning and act immediately to get their vehicles fixed,” Upton said in a statement on the Takata airbags. “We also need to take a close look at this airbag issue and the timeline and scope of the recalls to ensure that the appropriate steps are being taken to protect drivers and their families.”
Automakers and Takata have been testing airbags taken from consumer vehicles in regional recalls issued this summer to support NHTSA’s defect investigation. Recent results from those tests showed the risk of a rupture in hot, humid climates was “greater than previously identified,” prompting the agency’s initial warning on Monday, NHTSA said.
NHTSA now says its list of some 7.8 million vehicles included in the Takata airbag recall warning is up to date, though it may grow as its investigation into Takata continues.
The corrections late Tuesday caused confusion as the total number of vehicles spiked up by a few million, even though the recalls themselves had been announced before Toyota’s recall of some 247,000 vehicles on Monday.
NHTSA’s online recall search tools, crippled by technical difficulties early in the week, were limping back to life this afternoon. As a temporary workaround, the agency posted links to the recall search websites of the various manufacturers affected by the Takata recalls.
“The mission of NHTSA is to keep the American people safe. We are investigating Takata airbags failures, we secured recalls from automakers based on initial information, and we took action this week to alert consumers of the risk associated with millions of vehicles with defective airbags. As a result, impacted car owners are now able to determine whether their vehicles are covered by the Takata safety recall by visiting our website (safercar.gov/vinlookup).
NHTSA has taken an aggressive approach to ensuring safety on our highways by forcing the recall of millions of vehicles with defective airbags at the beginning of an investigation that remains open. We identified the problem and we are ensuring automakers take action in areas where there is a demonstrated risk.
We greatly regret that the information provided in our initial safety advisory was inaccurate and that we have experienced significant problems with our website. We have developed an effective workaround to the website problem that gets people the safety information they need now while we work to fix our system.
Protecting the American public is our top priority and we will leave no stone unturned in this investigation.”
Questions and Answers Attributable to NHTSA:
1. Is NHTSA’s safety advisory related to a new or widely expanded recall across manufacturers?
The makes and models included in the October 22 advisory include vehicles equipped with Takata airbags that were recalled in 2013 and 2014, roughly 28,000 of which were just announced by Toyota on Monday.
2. NHTSA’s VIN search tool is down. Why and when will it be back up?
NHTSA’s specific VIN look up tool is temporarily unavailable. Vehicle owners can now link to the individual manufacturer's NHTSA mandated recall lookup tools from our site: http://www.safercar.gov/vinlookup. This effective workaround gets people the safety information they need now while we work to fix our system.
At this time, the issue does not appear to be related to Internet traffic to the site or hacking. The VIN system had been operating properly under high traffic situations. Preliminary indications point to a recent software change that affects how the system interacts with the Internet. The agency is working with our vendors to diagnose and solve the problem.
3. If these vehicles have been already recalled, why is NHTSA issuing an urgent safety advisory?
Safety is our top priority and we want to ensure that consumers are responding to the 2013 and 2014 Takata airbag recalls. Recent testing on recovered airbags indicates that the risk associated with these airbags in hot, humid climates may be greater than previously identified. Getting vehicles repaired is essential for consumers’ personal safety and it will also help aid NHTSA’s ongoing investigation into the full scope of the 2014 regional recalls by increasing the number of recovered airbags that can be tested.
4. Why is the vehicle list different from the October 20th advisory NHTSA issued?
The list of make and model vehicles by manufacturer in NHTSA’s October 20 advisory did not include the full universe of affected vehicles, and incorrectly included certain vehicles.
NHTSA issued an updated advisory on October 22 to correct the record. The current advisory is a comprehensive list of vehicles recalled to date under the 2013 and 2014 calendar year recalls involving Takata air bags.
5. Why are the vehicle population’s numbers different from the October 20th advisory NHTSA issued?
The list of make and model vehicles by manufacturer in NHTSA’s October 20 advisory contained incorrect information. It did not include the full universe of affected vehicles, and incorrectly included certain vehicles. As a result the population numbers changed.
6. Will the vehicle population numbers continue to change?
The population numbers are subject to change at any time for a number of reasons. When a manufacturer announces a recall, they provide NHTSA with the potential number of affected vehicles. And as new data emerges, new vehicles could be identified and added to the recall.
7. What is the difference between the 2013 and 2014 recalls involving Takata air bags?
Both recalls address a vehicle defect related to the inflators in Takata airbags. The 2013 recalls involve vehicles nationwide. The 2014 recalls involve vehicles that have been exposed to consistently high temperatures and humidity. NHTSA is investigating the full geographic scope of this defect and will require the manufacturers to expand as necessary.
8. There have been news reports with conflicting information on the vehicle makes and models affected by the recall, as well as the population numbers. Why is that?
NHTSA’s October 20 advisory, provided to national media, was incorrect. It did not include the full universe of affected vehicles, and incorrectly included certain vehicles. NHTSA issued an updated advisory on October 22 to correct the record. The current advisory is a comprehensive list of vehicles recalled to date under the 2013 and 2014 calendar year recalls involving Takata air bags.
Consumers that are uncertain whether their vehicle is impacted by the Takata recalls, or any other recall, can check by their vehicle identification number (VIN) here: http://www.safercar.gov/vinlookup. This site currently contains an effective workaround to the website problem that gets people the safety information they need now while we work to fix our system.
Owners that have been contacted by their manufacturer should contact their dealer’s service department and make arrangements for the repair. In addition, consumers can sign up for NHTSA recall alerts, which go out before recall letters are mailed by the manufacturers to the affected owners.
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