In the early part of this century, Japanese supplier Takata manufactured some faulty airbags. The propellant associated with those airbags caused several of the devices to rupture upon deployment, spraying the interior of vehicles with shrapnel, resulting in at least three deaths in the U.S. alone. More than 12 million vehicles equipped with Takata airbags have been recalled in recent years.
However, Detroit News says that the problem may be more widespread than people think. The Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group, claims that Honda has under-reported airbag failures over the past several years -- specifically, the failure of airbags made by Takata.
As proof, the group notes that Honda has been sued for deaths and injuries caused by Takata airbags, but that Honda hasn't reported those incidents to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In fact, The Center for Auto Safety claims that this typifies a pattern of under-reporting from Honda. For example, the group notes that last year, General Motors reported more than 1,700 death and injury claims to NHTSA -- specifically, claims that should've prompted safety investigations or at least raised red flags. Toyota also reported more than 1,700 such incidents. Meanwhile, Honda logged just 28.
That's not to say that Honda isn't reporting incidents at all, or that it's lagged in response to the Takata airbag problem. In fact, the automaker has recalled over 6,000,000 Hondas and Acuras to date, and it's working with NHTSA to investigate a problem with sudden deployments on the 2008 Honda Accord. (Though it's not clear whether those devices were made by Takata.)
However, there are two causes for concern:
1. Honda is Takata's biggest client. The automaker clearly has a strong -- and likely, profitable -- relationship with the supplier, and it's not impossible that Honda could be attempting to soften the blow to its partner.
2. NHTSA doesn't have a great record of proofing self-reported data from automakers. As GM's "switchgate" fiasco has played out over the past several months, it's become clear that the agency is stymied by bureaucracy. Not only does that prevent NHTSA from keeping tabs on automakers and the safety complaints made to them, but it can also prevent NHTSA from seeing patterns among those complaints. Together, those factors may be inhibiting NHTSA's ability to notice under-reporting from Honda.
Of course, watchdog groups like The Center for Auto Safety don't have a 100 percent track record when it comes to the accuracy of their complaints. But at least two U.S. Senators -- Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward Markey (D-MA) -- have asked NHTSA to explain its oversight policies and practices, citing the Center's claims about Honda as cause for concern.