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As lawmakers shine a spotlight on how the nation’s highway safety watchdog has handled the recall of nearly 8 million vehicles over faulty air bags, the subject of “geographic recalls” will be taking some of the heat.
Some automakers caught in the massive recall of air bags produced by Japanese supplier Takata Corp., and implicated in at least four deaths, have chosen to limit those recalls specifically to regions of high “absolute humidity,” such as Florida, Puerto Rico and Guam, where industry data suggest the airbag failures are most likely to occur.
Critics of such limits, however, say they are irresponsible and ignore many realities of the marketplace, including the mobility of American drivers. The approach “suspends logic and common sense,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
“To issue a selective geographic recall is absolutely irresponsible and reprehensible when people living in other states may be equally at risk,” Blumenthal told NBC News during a telephone interview.
When Hien Tran died in early October in an Orlando, Florida hospital after a crash in her Honda Accord, she became at least the fourth victim of faulty airbags produced by Takata.
“To issue a selective geographic recall is absolutely irresponsible and reprehensible when people living in other states may be equally at risk.”
Within weeks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an unprecedented alert advising owners of 7.8 million vehicles sold in the U.S. to seek immediate repairs because their airbags could unexpectedly explode in a crash. In the case of Tran’s accident, metal shards entered her neck, initially leading police investigators to think she had been stabbed.
The NHTSA warning compiles and expands upon a series of recalls by a long list of manufacturers, including Honda, Toyota, General Motors and BMW, who used Takata airbags. NHTSA and some of those makers have chosen to target vehicles specifically sold in regions that experience what the federal agency describes as “high absolute humidity.” Absolute humidity is a measure of the amount of water vapor in a specific sample of air.
Leaving no stone unturned
“We have taken an aggressive and relatively unprecedented step by forcing a regional recall on limited information and we will not rest until we know the full geographic scope of the problem,” said Brian Farber, a spokesman for NHTSA, in a statement. It added that the agency “will leave no stone unturned” in its effort to find out why Takata airbags are failing.
NHTSA referred to that statement when asked for industry data that supports geographic limits on recalls.
"We deeply regret that the recent recalls of vehicles equipped with our airbags have likely raised significant concerns and troubles to our product users, our customers, shareholders and other stakeholders," Takata global chairman and CEO Shigehisa Takada said in a statement.
There have been other so-called “geographic recalls” in recent years, including service actions by GM, Honda and Chrysler. Toyota has used this targeted approach to address problems with excess corrosion on vehicles such as its Sienna minivan and Tacoma pickups after it found parts, such as a spare tire carrier, could fall off while driving. In that case, it limited the recall to states where salt is used extensively to clear winter roads.
While such an approach may seem to make sense, geographic recalls are coming under intense fire from critics such as Senators Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, and Blumenthal, both of whom have written sharply worded rebukes to NHTSA over its handling of the Takata recall.
They have called on NHTSA to issue a nationwide recall for all cars equipped with Takata air bags. “We believe that NHTSA should immediately issue a nation-wide safety recall on all affected cars, regardless of where the car is registered,” the lawmakers said in an October 23 letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Critics have noted that while Tran’s fatal accident occurred in Florida, the other three known Takata air bag deaths occurred in Oklahoma, Virginia and California. “(N)one of those states (are) covered by the regional recalls,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the independent Center for Auto Safety.
Critics contend that geographic recalls make a false assumption: that vehicles are only owned and operated in specific areas where they might or might not be exposed to specific weather and road conditions.
Cars are driven to other states and the market for used cars is now national, they argue. In decades past, a trade-in likely found a new owner nearby. Today, a large share of trade-ins pass through the vehicle auction system that might see a car shipped across country if high demand somewhere else would yield a higher resale price.
Industry data show that a typical vehicle is traded in every three to four years. With the average vehicle now lasting at least 11 years, it could have been operated in three very different environments before being scrapped.
NHTSA 'not dealing with the issues'
NHTSA “is not dealing with the issues,” said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA Administrator and a frequent critic of the way the agency and the auto industry handle safety-related issues.
Claybrook questioned how regulators could confidently limit the scope of the Takata recalls to Florida if NHTSA admits it doesn’t fully understand why the airbags are failing in the first place.
The data clearly support focusing on areas like Southern Florida, however, said Toyota spokesman John Hanson.
“We started gathering the air bags and Takata began testing them,” he said. “The compiled data began to show there was a much higher percentage of air bag failure in the southern Gulf Coast than in other parts of the country. We know there’s a higher level of humidity in that area.”
Hanson said Toyota previously announced a nationwide recall for vehicles using Takata airbags, but has issued an updated advisory focusing on the Gulf region. Other makers, however, are focusing solely on high-humidity areas.
Blumenthal and Markey want to have geographic recalls banned as part of an updated federal highway safety bill. In light of the massive General Motors ignition switch recall, the Connecticut lawmaker said there is strong bipartisan support that gives a new safety measure “a good shot” at passage in Congress.
But there are opponents who want to retain the regional practice, in part, because it can make it easier to achieve a compromise between NHTSA and automakers who might otherwise balk at a broader, more expensive recall campaign, industry experts say.
One NHTSA insider, who asked not to be named citing agency policy, said that a manufacturer has to “contact us…and justify” limiting a recall by region. It is something the agency says it will approval sparingly, and only when clearly justified.