WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will hold a full committee hearing on Thursday, November 20, 2014, at 10 a.m. titled, “Examining Takata Airbag Defects and the Vehicle Recall Process.” Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) will chair the hearing.
This hearing will examine the circumstances of a series of recalls beginning in 2008 for defective airbags manufactured by Takata. The most recent recalls for Takata airbags now encompass 10 automobile manufacturers and affect 7.8 million vehicles in the United States. The hearing will focus on how defective Takata airbags became installed in so many vehicles and the responses of both automakers and NHTSA to remedy the safety defect to protect consumers.
Please note the hearing will be webcast live via the Senate Commerce Committee website. Refresh the Commerce Committee homepage 10 minutes prior to the scheduled start time to automatically begin streaming the webcast.
Individuals with disabilities who require an auxiliary aid or service, including closed captioning service for the webcast hearing, should contact Stephanie Gamache at 202-224-5511 at least three business days in advance of the hearing date.
Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV
I want to thank Senator Nelson for chairing this important and timely hearing on yet another safety crisis in the automobile industry that has killed and maimed Americans for reasons we must uncover. He and Senators McCaskill, Blumenthal, and Markey have been on top of this developing situation, and have kept pressure on Takata and the automakers who use Takata products. And I would like to applaud Senator McCaskill’s leadership over the past several months on leading the Committee’s investigation into GM’s deadly ignition switches and oversight of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The latest safety crisis the Committee is examining today involves exploding airbags – manufactured by a single parts supplier, Takata Corporation – that have plagued Americans for nearly a decade. Who would have thought the very thing meant to protect us in a collision would end up doing the killing instead? Also troubling are Takata’s myriad of explanations over the years. Every time an airbag explodes, Takata seemingly comes up with yet another novel theory to explain why its airbags are killing and injuring people. Automakers that use Takata as their airbag supplier must also take responsibility for the safety defect they have exposed to so many Americans.
I am also greatly concerned about reports that vehicle owners cannot get their potentially deadly vehicles fixed, because there aren’t enough replacement parts. American consumers are rightfully nervous that they are driving ticking time-bombs, but there is nothing they can do about it. These consumers deserve auto manufacturers and parts suppliers to do absolutely everything in their power to replace these dangerous airbags. NHTSA has the authority to expand the number of airbag suppliers and repair facilities. If automakers are unable to fix this deadly defect in a timely manner, then NHTSA should use all of its statutory authority to accelerate the remedial process.
Senator Bill Nelson
Good morning everyone, Senator Thune and I have been looking forward to this.
We want to thank the witnesses for coming.
We want to investigate the link between defective airbags and the numerous injuries and deaths across the country – indeed, across the globe.
More than 7.8 million vehicles in the U.S. have been recalled because of defective airbags, and just this week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was calling on automakers to expand that recall from a few states – what they called a regional recall - to the entire country.
Well, the first thing that needs to be done is to take care of consumers.
Automakers need to get replacement parts so that airbags can be replaced, that needs to be sent to the dealers. And they need, - because of people potentially driving around with a defective airbag in their steering wheel and dashboard – the dealers, the automobile makers need to provide a loaner vehicle or a rental car for those whose cars cannot be immediately fixed.
General Motors recently took that kind of a step for certain models with faulty ignition switches.
And there is no reason why the automakers covered by this notice should not be required to take the same kind. I think it is absolutely imperative - in view of the fear that has gripped the public by virtue of what has already been said and what will be stated in this hearing today – that a loaner or rental car would be provided for someone if they cannot get their replacement of their defective airbag on the recall list done immediately.
The owners should have a right to expect that the cars that they drive are as safe as possible. So that’s going to be what we’re going to be facing in the next immediate future as we dig into the question of what in fact is the problem.
Now, I’ve written to Secretary Foxx urging him to impose civil penalties up to the full extent of his law on any company that refuses to provide drivers with an alternative form of transportation if they’re going to have to wait for their car to be repaired.
The American people have a right to know about the story behind this airbag recall. And so that’s why we’re here today.
Now let me just show you some of the items. This is part of the steering mechanism. It would be facing the driver like this and it would look like this in the wheel of the steering column.
And of course the chemicals inside this mechanism, upon impact the chemical reaction causes an inflation of the airbag and upon close examination you’ll see the little holes around the mechanism that the gas that is created by the chemical reaction comes out, inflates the airbag and it’s a device that has saved many, many people’s lives.
This compound, ammonium nitrate, seems to have a problem. Long about the turn of the year 2000, when it was changed as the compound, perhaps some of the metal as well, and when the explosions occur, instead of the gasses form to fill the airbag, additionally it explodes with such force that this metal shreds. And as a result, what you see, this particular case of an airbag, metal has shredded it.
Here’s a big hole, here’s another hole. And the very device that is supposed to save lives becomes a device that is taking lives. So that’s absolutely unacceptable.
Now after the opening statements of the respective chairmen and ranking members, I have asked an Air Force active-duty first lieutenant, who happens to be stationed at the large Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, FL to be our first witness and she will give you a firsthand account as to what her encounter has been with the defective airbag.
And so let me turn to our ranking member Senator Thune, our future chairman of this committee.
Senator Thune, thank you for participating.
Ranking Member John R Thune
“Thank you, Senator Nelson, for serving as chairman at this morning’s hearing to examine the alarming Takata air bag recalls and the actions of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These are certainly issues that belong on the Commerce Committee’s agenda.
“I would first like to thank Lieutenant Stephanie Erdman for being here today. Thank you also for your service to our country. We appreciate you coming here to tell your story and help inform this committee.
“This hearing is an important one, and our discussion today will explore matters of public safety and accountability. Ensuring the safety of American motorists is a priority, but the public’s trust has been shaken due to the record number of recalls this year and the beliefs many have about problems in the industry and at NHTSA.
“This year, record fines have been levied against Toyota, GM, and Hyundai. Now, with the latest news of problems with Takata air bags, we are again faced with examining an apparent failure with serious safety consequences. Today we will be asking Takata, NHTSA, and other stakeholders increasingly familiar questions about how these faulty products made it into consumers’ vehicles, when the problem was first discovered, and what steps, if any, could have been taken sooner that may have saved lives or prevented injuries.
“In this case, many would especially like to know whether the allegations reported in the New York Times that Takata knew of and hid risks related to air bags years ago are true. Questions also exist about NHTSA’s approach to these recalls and the wisdom of the agency’s initial decision to request regional, rather than national, recalls – a decision NHTSA has since reversed for some of the affected vehicles.
“The troubling string of recalls this year should be a wake-up call. I believe we can do a better job of addressing safety issues as they arise and holding automakers, their suppliers, and NHTSA accountable to their shared mission of ensuring safety on America’s roadways.
“In recent years, Congress has enacted—and NHTSA has sought to implement—a robust early reporting regime. The major automakers and other manufacturers have also instituted or sought to improve internal safety-reporting systems that encourage employees to report safety problems. But reports of employees whose concerns may have been ignored, silenced, or possibly even covered up persist.
“I believe we can do more to ensure that NHTSA is informed of potential defects as early as possible. That is why, later today, I, along with Senator Nelson, will be introducing the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act. I'm pleased that Senators Heller and McCaskill, who have been in the forefront of the committee's efforts on the GM recalls, are also sponsors of this legislation.
“This bill will incentivize employees who uncover serious allegations of vehicle defects or violations of motor vehicle safety laws that could lead to death or serious bodily injury to voluntarily provide that information to the Department of Transportation. If such information leads to DOT or Department of Justice enforcement actions that total more than $1 million in penalties, the whistleblower would be eligible to share in a portion of the total penalties collected.
“This bill will also protect whistleblowers’ identities and allow NHTSA to share information with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies, where appropriate. Other agencies have similar programs, including programs that incentivize individuals to report information to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the IRS.
“If there are potential whistleblowers with important information to help NHTSA identify more defects, we want them to come forward, so that these problems can be identified much earlier in the process. I think we would all agree that it is better to address a problem before injuries or deaths occur, if at all possible, rather than relying primarily on fines imposed after the fact. I look forward to working with stakeholders and my colleagues as we continue oversight on these safety matters.
“We will undoubtedly revisit many of these issues when we consider the president’s nominee to lead NHTSA. Having written President Obama twice in the last eight months, urging him to swiftly fill the administrator position at NHTSA that has now been vacant for 343 days, I am pleased that the president finally announced his intention to nominate Dr. Mark Rosekind on the eve of this hearing. This nomination is long overdue, and I look forward to reviewing the nominee’s qualifications and his plan for NHTSA in a timely manner.
“Finally, I urge all of my constituents watching this hearing to pay attention to any recalls and field actions – and if you determine your vehicle is subject to a recall, to get it repaired quickly by an authorized repair facility.“I thank the witnesses for being here today, and I look forward to your testimony.”
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Hiroshi ShimizuSenior Vice President, Global Quality AssuranceTakata Corporation
Mr. Rick SchostekExecutive Vice PresidentHonda North America
Mr. Scott KunselmanSenior Vice President, Vehicle Safety and Regulatory ComplianceChrysler Group, LLC
Ms. Stephanie ErdmanDestin, Florida
Witness Panel 2
Mr. David FriedmanDeputy AdministratorNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)