On Tuesday, June 23rd, I attended a hearing held by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee regarding the defective Takata airbag recall. The panel’s hearing was conducted to examine the role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the defective Takata airbag recall investigation, as well as the oversight of the recall performed by the Department of Transportation Office and Inspector General.
Unfortunately, the hearing highlighted even more worrisome news for drivers. Not only is the ongoing Takata airbag recall the largest recall in U.S. history, comprising around 33.8 million airbags and 11 automakers including Toyota, BMW and Honda, but it may also be the biggest red flag yet for the efficacy of the NHTSA.
The NHTSA is a government agency that is largely responsible for the safety of drivers and passengers on the road; it is the NHTSA that responds to consumer complaints and it is the NHTSA that is in charge of overseeing both auto manufacturers and many other related road safety rules and precautions. Like the road and vehicle equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the NHTSA, when working properly, keeps us all more safe and protected on the road. But when working improperly? The panel’s hearing may point to serious upsets like this wide-scale Takata airbag recall as an indicator that the system needs changing.
In fact, several senators threatened to withhold addition funding from our nation’s top auto safety agency until the NHTSA shows an improvement in its ability to identify defective parts. Other senators noted the negative report regarding the NHTSA released by the Transportation Department’s inspector general last week. The report cited several problems at the NHTSA, from failure to follow through on consumer complaints to insufficient training to failure to hold automakers accountable.
But it was Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal who drove the point home, asking Takata Corp. to create a fund to compensate families whose members were either injured or killed by these defective airbags. This fund, says Senator Blumenthal, could be similar to the fund created last year in the wake of the General Motors ignition switch crisis. Kevin Kennedy, the executive vice president of Takata’s North American affiliate, told Senator Blumenthal that he would have an answer in two weeks time.
As the investigation into the defective Takata airbags continues to unfold, it’s true: We need answers. But we also need more. Now, it’s time for Takata to hold themselves accountable to the countless people who may have been hurt by their reckless behavior — and it’s time, too, for the NHTSA to live up to the safety and protection our drivers deserve!