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Air bag recalls widen to almost 3 million cars

By Hiroko Tabuchi
New York Times

Worldwide recalls linked to defective air bags made by the Japanese supplier Takata, which regulators say could rupture and injure passengers with flying shrapnel, widened Monday as the Japanese automakers Honda, Nissan and Mazda recalled a total of almost 3 million cars for crucial fixes.

Japanese and U.S. regulators are investigating reports that defective Takata air bag inflators – used by at least seven global automakers – could cause the air bags to rupture. On June 11, Toyota said that it would recall 2.3 million vehicles worldwide.

It was the second recent recall over Takata-made air bags for the Japanese automakers, which with BMW recalled a total of 3.6 million cars in April and May last year over the same defect. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said this month that it would investigate whether recalls should be issued for other automakers’ vehicles.

Takata also thinks that it supplied the defective inflators to BMW, Chrysler and Ford, Reuters reported. It is up to the automakers to decide whether to recall affected vehicles, Akiko Watanabe, a Takata spokeswoman, said in Tokyo, where the manufacturer is based.

The recalls cast a spotlight on air bag technology, which is prohibitively difficult, expensive to develop and dominated by three major suppliers: Takata, the U.S. supplier TRW Automotive and the Swedish-American manufacturer Autoliv.

Although Takata has a spotty safety record – faulty seat belts that it manufactured forced recalls of almost 9 million cars in the 1990s – carmakers have little choice but to use Takata.

The recalls also come amid scrutiny over General Motors’ handling of a defective ignition switch in Cobalts and several other models. The automaker acknowledged this year that it failed for more than a decade to recall millions of defective cars tied to at least 13 deaths and 54 accidents.

It is unclear when Takata became aware of possible defects in its air bags, some manufactured over a decade ago at its Mexico plant.

Takata said in a statement Monday that it believed excessive moisture was behind the defect. Moisture and humidity could be seeping inside inflators, destabilizing the volatile propellant inside, said Haruo Otani, an official at the vehicle recall section of Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

On Monday, Honda recalled 2.03 million cars worldwide, including about 1.02 million in North America, to replace defective parts in the vehicles’ air bags. Nissan also issued a recall of 755,000 cars worldwide with Takata-made air bags, including 22,800 in North America. Mazda said it would call back about 160,000 cars for the same issue, about 15,000 of those in North America.

Honda first issued a limited recall of its Accord and Civic models in 2008, saying air bag inflators could blow up violently, releasing shrapnel into the car.

Two U.S. deaths have been linked to exploding air bags, in Oklahoma and Virginia, both in 2009 and in Honda vehicles. In both cases, Honda and Takata settled with families of the deceased.

Last week, Takata said that it had improperly stored chemicals and had mishandled the manufacture of explosive propellants that inflate air bags at its plant in Mexico. The manufacturer had also failed to keep adequate records of quality control, making it difficult to identify vehicles with potentially defective air bags and prompting a second round of recalls.

“We take this situation seriously. (We) will strengthen our quality control and make a concerted effort to prevent a recurrence,” the company said.

Honda’s latest recall applies to cars manufactured between 2000 and 2005, and includes the Fit, Element and CR-V models.

Models affected at Nissan were made between 2001 and 2003 and include the Cube, X-Trail and some Infiniti models.

Mazda is recalling cars made between 2002 and 2004, including the Atenza and RX-8.

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