Amid civil and criminal investigations, Honda has disclosed a fifth death caused by metal shrapnel from an exploding Takata airbag, this time in Malaysia. The unnamed woman died July 27 while driving a 2003 Honda City compact car. Honda found out a month later and reported it to the Japanese government on Sept. 10 but didn’t publicly release the information in the United States until this week. It’s the first acknowledged death outside the United States, prompting an expanded recall of 170,699 vehicles in several countries around the world. So far, about 14 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide, including 11 million in the U.S.
News of the latest death follows revelations by two former Takata employees that Takata conducted secret tests on the airbags in 2004—four years earlier than it has said it first conducted tests—after learning of an Alabama woman injured by a ruptured airbag. The employees told the New York Times that Takata’s vice president for engineering, Al Bernat, requested they retrieve 50 airbags from scrapyards for tests done after hours with only key personnel involved. Inflators in two of the airbags cracked and seemed on the verge of exploding. The whistleblowers say engineers were so alarmed they immediately began developing prototypes to fix what they thought was a welding issue. But three months later, they were ordered to stop their work and destroy all data and videos related to the tests. They were also told to throw the tested airbags in the trash. Bernat explained away the results, saying the two ruptured inflators came from vehicles that had been exposed to weather that corrupted them.
Takata has danced around since the world learned of the defective airbags. It has claimed that its problems with the propellant that fuels its inflators were fixed by the early 2000s, but documents show the company continued to be plagued by quality control problems in the late 2000s, and some consumer complaints involve vehicles as new as model year 2010. Many of the recalls focus on vehicles in areas with high humidity, but all vehicles are sometimes exposed to humidity. Takata hasn’t even given a concrete reason for why the inflators rupture—at varying times, it has blamed excessive internal pressure, two different propellant manufacturing processes, and exposure to moisture.
Honda, which has been quietly recalling vehicles since 2008, has also provided shifting answers to what it knew and when. The automaker dismissed the 2004 Alabama incident as an anomaly and didn’t report it to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Regulatory filings show Honda has been aware of other injuries since at least 2008 and confirmed deaths since 2009—the year a teenage girl died after a parking lot fender bender and a mother died in front of her children on Christmas Eve—but didn’t report them to NHTSA until 2011. Two other deaths have been linked to airbag explosions, including a woman whose neck injuries were so severe that police first investigated it as a homicide, believing someone had slashed her throat.
The hidden injuries and deaths and the shady explanations by Takata and Honda prompted an outcry from congressional leaders. Takata confirmed this week that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has served it with a subpoena after two senators demanded that the justice department open a criminal investigation: “If the reports [of secret testing] are true, the company must be held accountable for the horrific deaths and injuries that its wrongdoing caused. These allegations are credible and shocking–plainly warranting a prompt and aggressive criminal probe,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a letter. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is also rumored to be planning a hearing that has yet to be announced.
NHTSA—which is under fire for failing to promptly investigate this defect and the GM ignition switch defect—has also opened investigations into both Honda and Takata, ordering them to produce documents by the end of this month.