WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. auto safety regulators are considering unprecedented steps to speed up the replacement of potentially deadly Takata Corp. airbags in millions of cars that remain on American roads despite massive recalls initiated by automakers.
In a letter dated March 3, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind told U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that regulators had the authority to increase supply of replacement parts by requiring more manufacturers to produce them.
If NHTSA decides to exercise this right under the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act it would mark the first time the agency has done so since it was granted such authority in 2000.
Rosekind, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major accidents, took the helm of NHTSA in December as the agency weathered criticism for not responding more quickly to the Takata defects and another deadly problem involving faulty General Motors ignition switches.
NHTSA estimates that more than 17 million vehicles were manufactured with Takata airbag inflators that can explode and fire metal shards into the passenger compartments. The devices have been linked to at least six deaths and dozens of injuries. Regulators say the airbags have been replaced in fewer than 2 million vehicles, or under 12 percent of those subject to recall.
"With such a large number of affected vehicles, production of replacement air bags must be increased but without compromising safety," Rosekind told Nelson in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters.
"We will consider all options available to us, including whether to invoke the Safety Act."
A NHTSA official declined to say when the agency might reach a decision.
In 2000, Congress amended the Safety Act to grant the U.S. transportation secretary authority to require manufacturers to accelerate remedies if a recall program cannot be completed within a reasonable time and poses a risk of serious injury or death.
NHTSA has urged owners of certain vehicles from several automakers including Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and GM to replace the airbags as soon as possible. Those efforts have been dogged by supply issues.
Some auto industry officials said parts issues are already being addressed in discussions with Takata and other suppliers.
"We anticipate having sufficient supply starting in another several weeks, so we don't view this as a long-term concern that requires unprecedented use of NHTSA's authority," said Honda spokesman Chris Martin.
Rosekind told Nelson that NHTSA is in discussions with Takata as well as other airbag suppliers, including Autoliv Inc., to look at options to accelerate production.
Takata said on Monday it plans to double its capacity to make replacement airbag inflators over the next six months and it continues testing airbags that could spray shrapnel when deployed in an accident. The Japanese supplier expects to be producing about 900,000 replacement kits per month by September, up from 450,000 now.
Honda has also contracted with both Autoliv and Daicel Corp. to get replacement airbag inflators starting in the near future.