Federal regulators on Tuesday ordered air-bag maker Takata to pay a cash fine of $70 million and to speed up the replacement of defective safety devices that are in millions of cars and have killed seven people in the United States.
Takata also agreed to give an outside monitor appointed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “unrestricted access” to company documents and other information over five years to ensure the company complies with the terms of a consent order Tuesday and another from May.
That was in part a reaction to a history of bad information from the company, according to Tuesday’s order. “In several instances, Takata produced testing reports that contained selective, incomplete or inaccurate data,” according to the order, which noted that the company also “failed to clarify inaccurate information provided” to traffic safety administration regulators during a January 2012 presentation.
NHTSA also said that Takata faces much larger civil penalties, including $60 million if the company misses deadlines for phasing out production of some air bags and $70 million if additional safety violations are discovered.
If they all applied, the civil penalties would be nearly twice the largest ever issued by NHTSA. But they pale in comparison to the $1.2 billion in criminal fines against Toyota in connection with the sudden acceleration of its vehicles, and the $900 million in such levies against General Motors for ignition-switch problems.
Tuesday’s Takata settlement does nothing to impede an ongoing criminal investigation of the company by federal prosecutors, a federal official said.
Shigehisa Takada, Takata’s chairman and chief executive, said, “We deeply regret the circumstances that led to this Consent Order,” adding that Tuesday’s settlement “marks a pivot point for Takata by setting out an orderly transition to the next generation of inflaters.”
NHTSA officials said they are, for the first time, using their authority to speed up the repairs on millions of recalled vehicles, finding that “there is a risk of serious injury or death” if the fixes are not accelerated.
Eleven auto manufacturers have issued recalls for Takata air bags, and in certain cases a propellant problem has caused “explosive ruptures,” federal officials said. In addition to the deaths, those ruptures have caused nearly 100 injuries when drivers and passengers are struck by shrapnel from the bags.
The safety agency had manufacturers help come up with a “risk-based framework” for speeding up replacement of the air bags, which federal officials said are in 19 million vehicles.
Key factors include the age of the air bag (older is worse), where they are placed (more fatalities have occurred on the driver side), and the geography and climate (hot and humid is bad).
In particular, “vehicles that have spent significant continuous time periods in areas of high absolute humidity, such as the Gulf Coast region and Puerto Rico, are at a higher risk of rupture,” according to a federal outline of the agreement.
The highest-risk vehicles are “generally those from model years 2008 or older that have spent time in the high absolute humidity region and that have either a recalled driver-side inflator or both driver- and passenger-side inflators,” according to the outline.
NHTSA ordered all affected carmakers to guarantee that they have “sufficient remedy parts on hand” by March 31, 2016. Other risk groups have later deadlines in 2016.
But people still have to repair their cars to purge the potentially deadly parts. Federal officials gave manufacturers 90 days to come up with “recall engagement plans” outlining how they propose to “maximize remedy completion rates.”