Besieged airbag-maker Takata learned today that its stalling tactics will prove costly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) slapped a $14,000-a-day fine on the manufacturer for every day it refuses to cooperate with the safety agency’s probe into the exploding airbag inflators. The exploding inflators have been blamed for six deaths, the latest of which occurred this month in Houston, TX. A total of 64 injuries have also been attributed to the flaw.
According to Automotive News, the safety agency hit the airbag manufacturer with the fine because Takata had failed to “fully cooperate” with its probe. NHTSA also said that Takata may face Justice Department action if it doesn’t cooperate quickly. Today’s action stemmed from the agency’s issuance last year to a series of special orders, the equivalent of judicial subpoenas, that demanded Takata produce documents relating to the airbag issue, as well as answer questions under oath regarding the faulty inflators. The action was announced in a letter to Takata’s attorneys today from Kevin Vincent, recently NHTSA’s chief counsel.
To date, Takata told the automotive industry trade paper, it has supplied some 2.4 million pages of documentation to NHTSA so it can conduct its investigation into the defective parts. The order also stated that Takata was to provide NHTSA with descriptions that described the content of the documents. Takata has so far failed to provide the descriptions.
Vincent said, in his letter, said the airbag manufacturer had failed to be forthcoming with the agency because it had failed to supply the agency with all of the documentation it was required to provide legally and that it had failed to be cooperative with the agency in another matter before the agency “earlier this week.” Vincent did not identify that second matter.
Vincent also warned the airbag manufacturer that it will move quickly to question employees in the United States and Japan. The agency imposed the fine to spur compliance with agency’s probe. Potentially, Takata could face a total $420,000 fine for every month it refuses to rectify the situation. On a yearly basis, the potential fine could add up to more than $5 million.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in a statement issued today, said that “…Takata’s failure to cooperate with our investigation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated … For each day that Takata fails to fully cooperate with our demands, we will hit them with another fine.” At the same time, Foxx asked Congress to pass the Obama administration’s transportation bill, the Grow America Act. The bill, if enacted, will give regulators the ability to increase the maximum fine it can levy to $300 million. The present maximum civil fine is $35 million. Foxx said the new tools in the bill will help safety regulators to “change the culture of safety for bad actors like Takata.” There was no response from Takata.
The Senate Commerce Committee, in a rare show of bipartisanship, called on the airbag manufacturer to “do everything possible to aid” NHTSA and carmakers looking for the cause of inflator explosions. The Senate panel continues to probe Takata and held a series of hearings late last year into the many airbag recalls last year Committee Chair Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ranking minority member, told Takata they were “extremely troubled by the Department of Transportation’s report that Takata is not fully cooperating with such a serious safety investigation … We cannot tolerate delays or limited cooperation when people’s lives are at stake. The committee leaders also re-introduced a bill recently that gives whistleblowers who divulge information about safety defects part of the fines collected by NHTSA if the information uncovers a safety defect. The Senate panel is set to act on the bill next week.