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Concerns About Japanese Airbags: What Does It Take to Get The Facts?

Recently, Road Rules referenced a New York Times mid-September article on the series of incidents in the United States involving allegedly exploding Takata Corp. airbags that finally caught the attention of US federal regulatory investigators, i.e. the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In early December, The Globe and Mail newspaper published a Reuters/Associated Press backgrounder on the response of Japanese safety regulators to the now worldwide recall of over 16 million vehicles in connection with the potentially defective Takata Corp. airbags. The ‘story’ here is the perceived leniency of Japan’s regulators “toward an industry that’s a national champion” and the degree to which, if the NHSTA response was initially piecemeal and tepid, the Japanese response has been, at first, passive and then only slowly reactive.

In short, both countries’ supervisory agencies appear to have been less than alert to the growing evidence of a problem, but a question raised with respect to the Japanese ‘watchdog’ is whether or not it is simply too close to the industry to function effectively.

“Too much red tape” stories seem easy in comparison to the more complicated task of analyzing regulatory effectiveness. We learn that the Japanese Transport Ministry has an auto recall enforcement division consisting of 16 members. It didn’t learn about the potential safety issue with the air bags until 2008, three years after Takata says it first learned about them.

Takata wasn’t obliged to report the US incidents, all involving Honda cars, to the Japanese regulator because they hadn’t led to any US recalls yet. At the same time, there were no reported fatalities or injuries in Japan linked to the problem. There were, however, at least six incidents in Japanese scrap yards and four explosions in cars in use between 2011 and 2014 that did lead to recalls to date totaling 2.6 million vehicles in Japan.

Recently, the Japanese Government, to learn more about why Takata’s airbags can explode with dangerous force in crashes, and to speed up recalls, has set up an eight-person task force which receives information from Takata on an almost daily basis that it is weighing in determining whether or not to expand the recall in Japan.

Traffic safety regulators are charged with the task of testing for defects. Within NHTSA, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) conducts investigations the majority of which close at the lowest level ‘informal’ stage. In Japan, testing is outsourced to the National Traffic Safety and Environment Laboratory led by a team of nine engineers, retirees from the major automakers. Conflict of interest issues is addressed by not allowing team members to investigate vehicles made by their former employers. This agency has not confirmed whether or not it is investigating Takata airbags.

A second Japanese ministry, The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is also involved with resolving this issue. Officials focused on ensuring the timely supply of millions of airbags to fix those recalled have been quoted as saying, “We want to see Takata moving with a bit more urgency.” No doubt.

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