Exec From Inflator Manufacturer Testifies On Capitol Hill

HARTFORD, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP)Sen. Richard Blumenthal is pushing for a nationwide recall on vehicles equipped with potentially dangerous air bags.

However, the quality chief for the Japan-based manufacturer that makes the inflators linked to faulty airbags told a Senate committee Thursday that an expanded recall is not necessary.

Pointing to reports of incidents in regions outside the current air bag recall areas, Blumenthal, D-Conn., told WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane that evidence points to the need for nationwide action and should cover both driver’s and passenger side air bags.

“There’s really no design or manufacture difference between the two kinds of air bags, and both are potentially killers,” Blumenthal said.

Takata air bags can inflate with too much force, sending metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment and injuring people. The problem has caused at least five deaths and dozens of injuries. Humidity can cause the air bag propellant to burn too quickly.

Safety advocates say the suspect air bags could be in millions of cars and trucks.

On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demanded that the auto industry recall millions of additional cars. The action covers driver’s side air bags equipped with Takata Corp.’s inflators.

Previously, cars with the inflators had been recalled only in regions with high humidity, such as Gulf Coast states, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Up until now, about 8 million cars in the U.S. with Takata inflators have been recalled for problems with either the driver or passenger side air bag, or both. Another 4 million have been recalled outside the U.S.

Safety regulators say Tuesday’s action is based on incidents involving a death in California and an injury in North Carolina where the air bags were implicated. Both states are outside of the area covered by the earlier recalls.

“One can be an anomaly. Two becomes a trend, and we feel we need to act,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday, Takata Senior Vice President of Quality Hiroshi Shimizu said recalls should be limited to high-humidity areas.

Shimizu said tests have not revealed any inflator ruptures outside the high-humidity zones.

Lawmakers have pressured the government to expand the recall to all 50 states as reports of deaths and injuries emerged. While they’ll partly get their wish, the expanded recall won’t cover passenger air bags, at least not yet.

Also, car owners may run into the  problem of a limited number of replacement parts. Takata is struggling to make enough replacement air bag inflators to handle the smaller regional recalls and likely will have trouble supplying demand for a nationwide recall. The company has promised to add two production lines by the start of next year to make more inflators, Friedman said on a conference call following the government’s recall statement.

Blumenthal said Takata and carmakers should be ready to provide loaner vehicles at no charge.

Friedman said that if Takata and the automakers don’t agree to the recall quickly, the safety agency will use its legal powers to make sure the inflators are recalled.

The government’s demand for the national recall covers vehicles made by Ford, Honda, Chrysler, Mazda and BMW, generally from the 2008 model year and earlier. The owner of a 2007 Ford Mustang recently complained to the government about suffering a leg injury when an air bag malfunctioned in North Carolina.

Friedman said NHTSA is asking automakers for a complete list of vehicles with Takata inflators that are similar to the 2007 Mustang, and that information will be shared with the public when available. He did not know an exact number of vehicles involved.

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