“In my hand I have a piece of shrapnel from a Takata airbag incident in Miami last July,” Nelson said. “This shrapnel hit Clarabel Nunez in the forehead after her airbag deployed in a minor fender-bender, causing a serious facial injury that you can see in the picture behind me.”
She survived the accident, but Nelson and other senators chastised Takata Corp. and federal regulators for allowing faulty airbags into millions of U.S. vehicles. Eight deaths and more than 100 injures have been linked to Takata airbags as of this month.
The Japanese company issued a recall and is in the process of replacing millions of airbags, but lawmakers and auto makers doubted the quality of those replacements in testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Fiat Chrysler Automotive, one of the companies with cars on the recall list, is replacing the potentially dangerous airbags with ones made by TRW Automotive, Scott Kunselman, a company senior vice president, said.
One reason for this decision is that Takata still does not know why inflators in its airbags have shot metal shards into drivers and passengers, Kevin Kennedy, vice president of North America Takata Holdings, said. Despite that, Takata continues to replace airbags.
Kennedy said the new airbags are not the same model and that Takata is using parts from its competitors to ensure it completes the recall as quickly as possible.
A report released Monday by the committee’s Democrats said Takata put profit over safety when it halted global safety audits from 2009 to 2011.
Kennedy said the report misinterpreted company emails.
“The audits referred to in those emails were not the safety audits performed on the products,” Kennedy said. “The only thing that was suspended was participation from people from around the world. We held local safety audits. They were all done on schedule.”
The report also accuses Takata of poor planning, saying the company wasn’t producing enough replacement inflators for the air bags.
“At this rate of production, it would take Takata more than three years to produce replacement inflators for all recalled vehicles,” the report said.
Takata is producing just over half a million replacement airbags a month. The company will produce twice as many by September, Kennedy said.
Senators also blamed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — the agency charged with investigating vehicle defects — for not catching the exploding airbags sooner.
For example, the safety administration gets more than 300 complaints from motorists a day, but has only one person to evaluate those grievances. The agency’s investigators were also poorly trained, Scovel said.
Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator for six months, said the agency suffers from a lack of funding and personnel.
While some senators agreed and pledged to make more money available, others were not so forgiving.
“This audit report is one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. “This isn’t about resources it’s about blatant mismanagement and incompetence.”
Reach Jonathan A Capriel at [email protected] or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns onFacebookand follow us on Twitter.