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Economy & Business

Safety Regulators Turn Attention To Faulty Air Bags

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn now to another potentially deadly threat that has received a lot of attention lately.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Japanese company that produces the faulty airbags behind the recall of millions of cars is being sued. The nation-wide, class-action lawsuit was filed late yesterday in Florida.

MONTAGNE: In all, 10 automakers are facing recalls of cars with potentially defective airbags. The recalls follow some gruesome deaths linked to exploding airbag inflators and are considered extremely urgent in states like Florida where the warm, humid climate seems to trigger the malfunction. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Airbags are supposed to save people's lives, and they do, thousands of them. But in at least two cases, people in Honda vehicles were killed by their airbags. The inflators ruptured during deployment sending metal shards into their heads and necks. Dave Sullivan is an analyst with AutoPacific. He argues this defect is worse than GM's faulty ignition switch.

DAVE SULLIVAN: With GM, they at least could say, please don't put anything on your keychain and the car should be safe to drive.

SAMILTON: But this time, the only way to avoid all risk is don't get in an accident. The airbags were supplied to 10 automakers by one Japanese supplier, Takata. Sullivan doesn't know how the company's going to meet the demand for replacements.

SULLIVAN: These cars are old. The parts are out of production. Where are they going to build these parts? And how are they going to build them on tooling that maybe doesn't exist anymore?

SAMILTON: But automakers say not all the airbags have to be replaced right away. Cindy Knight is with Toyota which, unlike Honda, reports no fatalities or injuries related to the defect. Knight says the sense of urgency applies to cars being driven in hot, wet regions - places with high absolute humidity.

CINDY KNIGHT: And it's a very specific condition that includes Southern Florida, areas in the U.S. that are along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

SAMILTON: Toyota and other automakers are recalling cars in the hot, humid places first. Several members of Congress want every car with a Takata airbag to be recalled ASAP. That's between 20 and 30 million cars.

Neil Steinkamp is with the consultant firm Stout Risius Ross. He studies warrantees and recalls in the auto industry. While a limited regional recall may seem timid to those outside the industry, Steinkamp says it's also good not to overreact.

NEIL STEINKAMP: But yet if one thing happens with one person that is catastrophic, we're going to recall every single one of them and replace every single part. It's a difficult balancing.

SAMILTON: Steinkamp says this isn't the first time one supplier caused a ripple of recalls across the industry, and it won't be the last.

STEINKAMP: Naturally when you have that many new vehicles, refreshed vehicles, new technology and new materials, you're going to have more risks.

SAMILTON: So Steinkamp says there has to be better and earlier reporting. Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific says it's the job of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make sure that happens.

SULLIVAN: If these airbag issues with Takata don't force some sort of major change in the way NHTSA does business - whether they need more funding or whatever it may be - then I don't know what will.

SAMILTON: Meanwhile there are other troubling complications with these recalls. A third-party audit is attempting to determine if Honda's reporting of injuries and fatalities was faulty. There are isolated reports from the early 2000s of Takata airbags malfunctioning. Federal safety regulators are investigating whether the airbags were improperly sealed. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.