Sen. Richard Bluenthal (D-Conn.) is one of the critics of NHTSA's regional approach to the Takata recall.

(c) 2014

When Hien Tran died earlier this month in an Orlando, Florida, hospital after a crash in her Honda Accord, she became at least the fourth victim of faulty airbags produced by Japanese supplier Takata.

Within weeks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an unprecedented alert advising owners of 7.8 million vehicles sold in the U.S. to seek immediate repairs because their airbags could unexpectedly explode in a crash. In the case of Tran’s accident, metal shards entered her neck, initially leading police investigators to think she had been stabbed.

The NHTSA warning actually compiles and expands upon a series of recalls by a long list of manufacturers, including Honda, Toyota, General Motors and BMW, who used Takata airbags. Notably, NHTSA and some of those makers have chosen to target vehicles specifically sold in Florida, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam and other regions that experience what the federal agency describes as high “absolute humidity.”

“We have taken an aggressive and relatively unprecedented step by forcing a regional recall on limited information and we will not rest until we know the full geographic scope of the problem,” said Brian Farber, a spokesman for NHTSA, in an e-mailed statement that added that the agency “will leave no stone unturned” in its effort to find out why Takata airbags are failing.

There have been other so-called “geographic recalls” in recent years, including service actions by GM, Honda and Chrysler. Toyota has used this targeted approach to address problems with excess corrosion on vehicles such as its Sienna minivan and Tacoma pickups after it found parts, such as a spare tire carrier, could fall off while driving. In that case, it limited the recall to states where salt is used extensively to clear winter roads.

While such an approach may seem to make sense – why recall a pickup used in warm, dry Los Angeles, for example – geographic recalls are coming under intense fire from critics such as Senators Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, and Connecticutt’s Richard Blumenthal, both of whom have written sharply worded rebukes to NHTSA over its handling of the Takata crisis.

“To issue a selective geographic recall is absolutely irresponsible and reprehensible when people living in other states may be equally at risk,” Sen. Blumenthal told during a telephone interview. The approach “suspends logic and common sense.”

The Connecticut Democrat and other critics are quick to note that while Tran’s fatal accident occurred in Florida, the other three known Takata airbag deaths occurred in Oklahoma, Virginia and California, “none of those states covered by the regional recalls,” stressed Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Critics contend that geographic recalls make a potential fatal false assumption, that somehow, vehicles are only owned and operated in specific areas where they might or might not be exposed to specific weather and road conditions.

Speaking on background, a member of Sen. Markey’s staff noted as many as 1 million Massachusetts residents will drive to Florida each year, many of them “snow birds” who will remain in that humid state for an extended period.

Not only are motorists mobile, but so are the vehicles they own. In decades past, the car you traded in might have been likely to find a new owner nearby. Today, a large share of trade-ins pass through the vehicle auction system that might see a car shipped across country if high demand somewhere else would yield a higher resale price.

Industry data show that a typical vehicle is traded in every three to four years, and with the average vehicle now lasting at least 11 years, it could have been operated in three very different environments before being scrapped.

NHTSA “is not dealing with the issues,” argued Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA Administrator and a frequent critic of the way the agency and the auto industry handle safety-related issues.

Claybrook asks how regulators can confidently limit the scope of the Takata recalls to Florida if NHTSA admits it doesn’t fully understand why the airbags are failing in the first place. Indeed, the statement from spokesperson Farber makes it clear that a specific cause has yet to be identified.

But the data clearly support focusing on areas like Southern Florida, countered Toyota spokesperson John Hanson.

(Takata’s troubles don’t end with faulty airbags. For more, Click Here.)

“We started gathering the airbags and Takata began testing them,” he explained, adding that, “The compiled data began to show there was a much higher percentage of airbag failure in the southern Gulf Coast than in other parts of the country. We know there’s a higher level of humidity in that area.”

Hanson stressed that Toyota previously issued a nationwide recall for vehicles using Takata airbags, but has issued an updated advisory focusing on the Gulf region. Other makers, however, are focusing solely on high-humidity areas.

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The geographic recall concept has been challenged in court, though the case filed by the Center for Auto Safety was tossed out on a technicality, and the consumer group is considering a new legal action.

It may not have to. Senators Blumenthal and Markey want to have the practice barred as part of an updated federal highway safety bill. In light of the General Motors ignition switch debacle, the Connecticut lawmaker said there is strong bipartisan support that gives a new safety measure “a good shot” at passage in this notoriously gridlocked Congress.

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But there are opponents who want to retain the regional practice, in part, because it can make it easier to achieve a compromise between NHTSA and automakers who might otherwise balk at a broader, more expensive recall campaign, several sources explained. One NHTSA insider explained that a manufacturer has to “contact us…and justify” such a step.

NHTSA’s handling of the Takata crisis, as well as the broader subject of geographic recalls, will be in the spotlight this week during hearings on Capitol Hill led by Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, a frequent agency critic.

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