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Department Of Transportation Wants Millions More Air Bags Recalled

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a full national recall is needed for driver's-side air bag inflators that have been found to sometimes pepper drivers with metal shrapnel.

Takata, the Japanese auto supplier that makes a third of the air bags used by the industry, so far has focused its recall on regions with high heat and humidity — a focus that's too narrow, the Department of Transportation agency said in a statement.

"NHTSA contacted Takata and the vehicle manufacturers this week to call for the national recall of these vehicles after evaluating a recent incident that involved a failure in a driver's side air bag inflator outside an area of high absolute humidity. Based on this new information, unless Takata and the manufacturers quickly agree to this recall, NHTSA will use the full extent of its statutory powers to ensure vehicles that use the same or similar air bag inflator are recalled. ...

"In recent days, Takata has publicly conceded that it changed the chemical mix of its air bag inflator propellant in newly designed inflators. As part of its ongoing investigation, the agency will analyze the information received to determine if the chemical composition of Takata's propellant mix may be a cause and/or contributing factor in the air bag inflator ruptures. ...

"While NHTSA is not aware of either field incidents or test data suggesting that the problem affecting passenger-side air bags in the areas of persistently high humidity extends beyond those areas, the agency has been pushing the industry to perform testing to ensure that current recalls effectively cover vehicles with air bags that could be potentially affected by this defect."

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BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota all use the inflators that are the target of the recall.

Reuters notes that, facing a criminal investigation, the parts manufacturer has lawyered up:

"Takata Corp said on Tuesday it has hired Andrew Levander, a prominent New York defense lawyer, to oversee legal matters including a criminal probe stemming from a growing scandal about its defective air bags.

"More than 17 million cars have been recalled worldwide since 2008 for defects in the Japanese manufacturer's air bag inflators. Five deaths and dozens of injuries have been linked to the flaw. ...

"Takata also faces more than 20 class-action lawsuits, congressional scrutiny and a probe from the U.S. auto safety regulator."

Update at 8 p.m. ET: These long-running problems — first spotted in 2004 — in a device that has saved many thousands of lives worldwide are deeply disappointing, former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook told NPR.

"I think it's about time [that the government stepped in]. The whole concept of ... regional recalls based on high humidity affecting the air bag inflator was ridiculous," she said. "Because cars travel all over the United States, and you can't isolate them that way."

One issue to keep an eye on, Claybrook said, is that affected car manufacturers will need to go back to Takata to get replacement parts for the recall.

"One of the unanswered questions is, exactly what is the defect, and what is gonna be different about the new air bags from the ones that are in cars today?" she said.

Update at 10:15 p.m. ET:

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told NPR that her organization was pleased with the decision, but that there never should have been a regional recall.

"At this point NHTSA's actions have raised more questions than they have provided answers. This is a problem that NHTSA has known about since 2008, and I think the question that advocates and other groups are asking NHTSA is, why didn't you act sooner?" she said. "And why did you go along and allow these regional recalls without really assessing how serious this problem really is?"

Gillan said she hopes congressional hearings later this week, at which NHTSA and Takata are expected to testify, answer some questions.

"Who knew what when, and why wasn't the government more quick to insist that there be action, and that these deaths and injuries be prevented?" she said.