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Showdown looms between federal regulators, Japanese air bag maker Takata

The Associated Press
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REUTERS
A billboard advertisement of Takata Corp is pictured in Tokyo September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

DETROIT — A showdown is looming between U.S. safety regulators and a Japanese company that makes air bags linked to multiple deaths and injuries. Car companies and the driving public are caught in the middle.

The air bag inflators can explode with too much force, sending metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment.

Takata Corp. insists that recalls covering 8 million U.S. cars in high-humidity areas are sufficient. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants millions more added to the recalls, citing evidence the problem can occur outside of high-humidity regions.

“Takata’s initial response, yes, (was) an unwillingness to move forward,” David Friedman, the agency’s deputy administrator, said Tuesday. “Everyone needs to understand that Takata needs to act.”

Takata has set aside more than $400 million to cover recall costs in the United States and around the world. A broader recall could cost the company millions more. In a statement issued Wednesday in Japan, Takata said it is concerned that a national recall would divert parts from high-humidity areas, putting lives at risk.

The impasse could put pressure on automakers such as Honda, Ford and Mazda to expand the recall on their own. Ultimately, they are responsible for doing recalls. Automakers could go ahead with the recalls on their own and settle cost issues later with Takata, said Allan Kam, a former NHTSA attorney who now is a consultant to consumers and manufacturers.

Takata, he said, is not among his clients.

The safety agency acted after weeks of criticism from lawmakers, who said it was too slow to respond to mounting recalls and reports of deaths and injuries. On Wednesday, the Obama administration nominated National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind to run the agency. He must be confirmed by the Senate.

NHTSA said its demand for an additional recall was based on incidents involving a death in California and an injury in North Carolina in which the air bags were implicated. Both states are outside of the area covered by the earlier recalls, which generally cover areas with average dew points of 60 degrees or higher along the Gulf Coast, plus Hawaii.

Takata said Wednesday that nearly 1,000 inflators from outside high-humidity areas have been tested, and no canisters have ruptured.

The company said it agrees the recalls should be expanded, but only if “appropriate and necessary to respond to a safety risk.”

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