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NHTSA, Takata aware of exploding airbags for years, report claims

by Justin King

NYT investigation exposes cozy relationship between feds, automakers.

Honda, supplier Takata and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration have all come under fire for their handling of the exploding-airbag recall.

A New York Times investigation places most of the blame on Honda and Takata, accusing both companies of being aware of the apparent problems for years without taking action or properly notifying the NHTSA of the true scope of the defect.

The recall tally now includes more than 14 million vehicles from most major automakers. Several deaths and dozens of injuries have been associated with the defect in Honda vehicles alone, suggesting the death toll could continue to climb.

Most of the injuries and deaths have been blamed on metal shrapnel launched into the cabin after defective airbag inflators exploded. The problem is said to have been first reported a decade ago, but Honda quietly reached confidential settlements with several victims in the following years.

The Japanese automaker eventually issued a recall in 2008, however it was limited to a small batch of a few thousand vehicles. Takata has been accused of minimizing the reported extent of the problem until the recent wave of recalls, leading to even more injuries and several deaths over the next six years.

The NHTSA is tasked with monitoring data to spot such defects, even if the automakers are either oblivious to the issue or willfully maintaining a coverup. The Times investigation found that Honda did issue a notification to the NHTSA in 2004, but the required filing merely mentioned that an "unusual" deployment had caused an injury.

The force of a properly-functioning airbag can be quite significant, causing bruises or other mild injuries as the bag inflates. Without including any additional information, such as noting the exploding inflator and shrapnel, Honda's reports were written in a way that avoided drawing attention to the real issue.

Despite receiving arguably misleading information, regulators did appear to take notice in 2009. The agency quickly dropped its inquiry due to a lack of information, then declined to review additional records offered by Takata.

GM has received the most negative attention this year for mishandling the ignition-switch recall. The NHTSA is now coming under increasing scrutiny for alleged complacency, as critics call for even more reporting requirements and additional resources for the agency to spend investigating potential defects.

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