DETROIT - U.S. safety regulators are threatening fines and legal action against airbag maker Takata Corp. unless it admits that the company's driver's side airbag inflators are defective and agrees to a nationwide recall.
In a letter to Takata's Washington office, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Japanese company until Tuesday to file paperwork declaring a defect and agree to expand the recall from high-humidity states to the full nation.
The company's airbags have been blamed for at least five deaths and multiple injuries worldwide. They can inflate with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and sending shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
Takata's inflators "pose an unreasonable risk of death or serious injury that may result from a component that, when not defective, is designed to save lives," Frank Borris II, director of NHTSA's Office of Defects Invesigation, said in the letter, which was addressed to Kazuo Higuchi, a senior executive at Takata.
The letter is the first step in a legal process to compel a recall. To do so, the agency must make a finding that there's a safety defect, hold a public hearing and then it can go to court. It can also fine the company up to $7,000 per vehicle with defective inflators, and NHTSA says there are millions on the road today.
"Be assured that we will use all of our authority and resources to ensure that America's drivers and passengers are safe." Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Takata has maintained that the airbag problems are caused by prolonged exposure to airborne moisture, and that there's no need for a national recall. Boundaries of the recall zone vary by manufacturer, but generally it covers Gulf Coast states, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and some U.S. territories.
A company spokesman said Wednesday that he was working on a response to the government letter.
In the letter, NHTSA says Takata hasn't filed a safety defect letter as demanded by the agency on Nov. 18. The company, the letter said, has not provided an explanation for two driver's side airbag inflator ruptures outside the high-humidity areas.
"Despite the severe consequences of airbag ruptures and mounting data demonstrating a safety defect, Takata responded that it did not agree with NHTSA's basis for a nationwide recall," the letter stated.
The agency cites a May 31 inflator rupture in California that injured the driver of a 2005 Honda Accord and an Aug. 17 case in North Carolina in which the driver of a 2007 Ford Mustang was hurt.
About 8 million vehicles from 10 manufacturers have been recalled in the U.S., and nearly 14 million worldwide. The vehicles have Takata driver's side or passenger side airbags, or both. So far the government is not seeking a national recall of passenger side airbags.
Lawmakers have said there are 100 million cars and trucks in use worldwide with Takata airbags, and more than 30 million in the U.S.
Recently NHTSA has gotten tough with Takata on the airbag issue, but lawmakers have criticized the agency for a slow and haphazard response to a problem that has been unfolding since at least 2008.
NHTSA has posted a list of vehicles affected by the airbag recall and is urging owners to "take immediate action." Drivers can find out if their vehicles are part of the recall by using a search tool on SaferCar.gov.
BMW: 627,615 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2000 - 2005 3 Series Sedan
2000 - 2006 3 Series Coupe
2000 - 2005 3 Series Sports Wagon
2000 - 2006 3 Series Convertible
2001 - 2006 M3 Coupe
2001 - 2006 M3 Convertible
Chrysler: 371,309 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2003 - 2008 Dodge Ram 1500
2005 - 2008 Dodge Ram 2500
2006 - 2008 Dodge Ram 3500
2006 - 2008 Dodge Ram 4500
2008 - Dodge Ram 5500
2005 - 2008 Dodge Durango
2005 - 2008 Dodge Dakota
2005 - 2008 Chrysler 300
2007 - 2008 Chrysler Aspen
Ford: 58,669 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2004 - Ranger
2005 - 2006 GT
2005 - 2007 Mustang
General Motors: undetermined total number of potentially affected vehicles
2003 - 2005 Pontiac Vibe
2005 - Saab 9-2X
Honda: 5,051,364 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2001 - 2007 Honda Accord
2001 - 2002 Honda Accord
2001 - 2005 Honda Civic
2002 - 2006 Honda CR-V
2003 - 2011 Honda Element
2002 - 2004 Honda Odyssey
2003 - 2007 Honda Pilot
2006 - Honda Ridgeline
2003 - 2006 Acura MDX
2002 - 2003 Acura TL/CL
2005 - Acura RL
Mazda: 64,872 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2003 - 2007 Mazda6
2006 - 2007 MazdaSpeed6
2004 - 2008 Mazda RX-8
2004 - 2005 MPV
2004 - B-Series Truck
Mitsubishi: 11,985 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2004 - 2005 Lancer
2006 - 2007 Raider
Nissan: 694,626 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2001 - 2003 Nissan Maxima
2001 - 2004 Nissan Pathfinder
2002 - 2004 Nissan Sentra
2001 - 2004 Infiniti I30/I35
2002 - 2003 Infiniti QX4
2003 - 2005 Infiniti FX35/FX45
Subaru: 17,516 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2003 - 2005 Baja
2003 - 2005 Legacy
2003 - 2005 Outback
2004 - 2005 Impreza
Toyota: 877,000 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2002 - 2005 Lexus SC
2002 - 2005 Toyota Corolla
2003 - 2005 Toyota Corolla Matrix
2002 - 2005 Toyota Sequoia
2003 - 2005 Toyota Tundra