Honda probes airbag incident report; NHTSA flexes muscle

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may reopen the 1.56-million-vehicle Jeep gas tank recall if it finds that results are not good. Meatime, the agency also plans a safety summit with auto industry leaders.

Takata airbags continued to make news yesterday as the Honda Motor Co. announced it was probing a new report of an airbag-related injury. Apparently non-fatal, the injury reportedly occurred early last month in Florida, according to Automotive News “First Edition,” a digital streaming service. The incident involved a 2003 Honda Civic. The 2003 Civic, a subcompact, was among the millions of vehicles that may have been affected by Takata airbag crisis that has plagued the number two airbag manufacturer for months. According to police reports, an airbag in the front section of the subcompact exploded on deployment, sending a piece of shrapnel scything toward the driver. The driver was wounded in the neck.

Authorities were reluctant to point fingers at the airbags in this incident, however, the automaker has announced that it is launching a probe into the issue. This is the latest in a long string of accidents that have killed six and injured dozens more. The first recall campaign, affecting millions of vehicles, was launched in 2008. It affected vehicles all the way back to 2003 and before. Later, another recall was launched, covering the same period. Last year, another recall was begun, covering the front passenger-side airbag. The recall was limited to warm, high-humidity areas such as the U.S. South, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Pacific Trust Territories. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked Takata to expand the recall to nationwide, but the airbag manufacturer balked. Takata failed to provide the safety agency with timely or organized data. For its stance, NHTSA fined the airbag-maker $14,000 per day until it became more cooperative. More cooperation was finally achieved recently, according to Mark Rosekind, administrator of NHTSA, although it has been slow-going. In addition to NHTSA’s action on airbags, Honda, the automaker whose products have probably been the hardest-hit by the airbag recalls, has begun its own independent probe of the problem. The automaker, also a member of a 10-company consortium that is looking into the airbag problem, decided that it would also open its own probe to find the cause.

In other safety-related news, NHTSA said over the weekend that it would continue to ratchet up pressure on the auto industry on safety and defect issues. Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator, said to reporters at the New York International Auto Show that the agency has adopted a more proactive stance on safety and defect reporting. He told reporters covering the show that he hopes to establish a safety culture.

Rosekind wants to work closely with the auto industry to establish programs that will create the type of safety culture he is seeking. To do so, the NHTSA administrator plans to hold two events this year alone to bring the auto industry on board. In early June, the agency will hold a safety summit to which it will invite the chief executive officers of the major automakers (Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Honda, for example). At the summit, he hopes to reach an accord on how to improve how the car industry handles safety and defects. He also hopes to lay out a two-year strategy to meet the agency’s ambitious goals. NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said after Rosekind’s remarks that the agency is still working out the details for the meetings. The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, an organization that represents the major automakers, welcomed the planned summit and looked forward to meeting with NHTSA officials to achieve the goals.

Meantime, the agency will also be taking a close look at the 2013 recall of 1.56 million Jeeps for gas tank problems. The agency, Rosekind also told reporters at the auto show, wants to look at the numbers of vehicles recalled to date and the speed at which the recall is taking place. The NHTSA plans a close look at first quarter repair numbers and if the rate of repair is not to the agency’s liking, it may reopen the recall. To date, 388,000 Jeeps have been recalled said Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles spokesman Eric Mayne. Further, he said the automaker has tried to contact affected owners more than 5.4 million times by email and phone.

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