The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into Honda, the Japanese automaker, after it failed to report numerous incidents involving air bag failures that have caused injury and death in the US and elsewhere. The faulty airbags are manufactured by Takata, another Japanese based parts maker.
Officials are investigating whether or not the company has failed to report early warning data to the NHTSA as required by law. The TREAD Act, Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation, requires Automobile manufacturers who produce more than 5,000 vehicles to submit early warning reports and investigative proof of the causation of injury or death to the defects, including information on every incident that did result in death or injury.
TREAD was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000 and was primarily a result of the Ford Explorer fitted with Firestone tire debacle which was of such public interest that Congress passed TREAD in incredible speed, taking only 18 hours. TREAD attaches serious financial and criminal penalties for companies who violate its’ provisions. Honda may be facing significant fines and even Honda executives may be subject to criminal penalties, including jail time.
NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said Monday that his agency’s “focus is keeping the American public and their vehicles safe.” Friedman noted that Honda and any other automakers’ failure to report information on such incidents “will not be tolerated.”
Interestingly, there are about a dozen automakers involved in a broader investigation. However, regulators have focused the initial criminal investigation on Honda. Honda and its luxury brand, Acura, account for over 5 million cars that are listed for recall in the US alone. The other ten auto manufacturers account for some 3 million vehicles total. Trouble is brewing on the horizon for Honda as available replacement parts are flying off the shelves. Thus far the recall has been surprisingly orderly, with few delays reported in some regions.
The NHTSA has ordered the priority replacement of the defective airbag inflators in the areas most at risk of faulty performance; Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. These areas are predominantly hot and humid and the activator on the inflator has been found to be more apt to malfunction in these conditions.
The bigger question is whether or not Takata can ramp up its manufacturing plants quick enough to re-supply the Honda dealers with quality replacement parts. Takata stopped manufacturing that particular part over 6 years ago, most of the vehicles affected were sales years 2001-2007. According to a report in The Detroit News in August of 2014, Takata was able to manufacture only 132,459 replacement parts. That is a drop in the proverbial bucket when nearly 8 million US cars will need the part.
In all, 30 injuries and at least 3 deaths have been linked to the defect. It is possible that other incidents will be attributed to this issue as investigators comb through records of other, possibly unexplained, incidents. The intensity of the rancor from Capitol Hill and the Obama Administration could put significant pressure on investigators to penalize Honda, and other auto manufacturers as well, for turning a blind eye to a serious defect that can cause such devastating personal injury and loss to the American driving public.