WASHINGTON — The quality chief for Japanese air bag maker Takata Corp. told a Senate committee Thursday that a national recall of driver's side air bag inflators is not necessary.
In testimony before the Commerce Committee, Senior Vice President of Quality Hiroshi Shimizu said recalls should be limited to high-humidity areas.
Takata air bags can inflate with too much force, sending metal shrapnel into the passenger compartment and injuring people. The problem has caused at least five deaths and dozens of injuries. Prolonged exposure to high humidity can cause the air bag propellant to burn too quickly.
So far, recalls have been limited to Florida, Hawaii, areas along the Gulf Coast, as well as Puerto Rico and some other U.S. territories. U.S. safety regulators are now demanding that Takata recall driver's air bags nationwide after incidents in California and North Carolina.
But Shimizu says tests have not revealed any inflator ruptures outside the high-humidity zones.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is threatening legal action if Takata and automakers don't do the national recall. So far, Ford, Mazda, Chrysler and Honda, the companies covered by the agency's demand, have not expanded their recalls.
Shimizu said Takata is "deeply sorry and anguished" about each instance when its air bags didn't perform as designed. He said that while each air bag failure is terrible and unacceptable to the company, its air bags are helping to save lives and prevent injuries on the roads every day.
"We are confident that the air bags Takata is producing today, including the replacement for recalled units, are safe," he said.
Shimizu is likely to face tough questions during the hearing, with many Senators calling for stronger regulation and national recalls.
"The first thing that needs to be done is to take care of consumers," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who presided over the hearing. He said he is asking Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox to fine any carmakers that don't provide loaner cars to drivers whose affected air bags can't be replaced quickly.
In opening statements at Thursday's hearing, panel members raised the possibility of a cover-up by Takata on the defective air bags.
"We need to know what they knew and when they knew it," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Stephanie Erdman of Destin, Florida, whose face was severely injured by a ruptured Takata air bag inflator, testified early in the hearing, her voice breaking as she urged the government to bring an end to any further accidents.
"I should not have been injured in the horrifying way that I was. ...These companies should have done everything they could," she said.
Executives from Honda and Chrysler are also testifying at the morning hearing.