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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Car safety needs beefing up

News that another automobile industry player allegedly knew for a decade it was making faulty, potentially lethal car parts but said nothing is one more example of why tougher regulation is needed of an industry that affects so many Americans. Takata Corp. was apparently willing to gamble with millions of passengers' lives so that it could keep its flawed airbags secret. Now regulators need to make clear just how bad a bet that was, and the criminal investigation Congress is seeking should begin.

According to a report in the New York Times, Takata, a Japanese company that is one of the world's largest airbag suppliers, first uncovered systemic problems with its airbags in 2004 after an airbag exploded in a Honda. A Takata executive ordered secret tests of 50 airbags gathered from scrap yards. The tests were conducted at night, on weekends and on holidays. Three months of examination revealed that the company's airbags were prone to explosion. Former Takata employees told the New York Times that they also designed fixes for the problem before senior employees ordered them to stop the testing and destroy all evidence of their work. When questioned about the airbag problems, executives blamed the product's flaws on the weather, saying the airbags had been retrieved from cars that were corrupted by heat or rain.

Takata fessed up in June, saying the propellant inside its airbags could produce too much pressure and explode, sending shards of metal into drivers and front-seat passengers. The announcement set off a worldwide recall of more than 14 million cars from 11 different manufacturers. At least three deaths have been attributed to the faulty airbags, including an Orlando woman who died in October after the airbags deployed in her Honda Accord and metal flew into her neck. Federal regulators say they have received complaints of 139 injuries.

The Takata debacle comes amid a banner year for botched auto recalls. General Motors waited more than a decade before issuing a recall of several of its small cars with faulty ignition switches. When jostled, the ignition switch would cause the engine to shut off, a flaw that has been linked to at least 29 deaths. In far too many of the recalls affecting more than 50 million U.S. cars this year, the companies knew about problems with cars long before they alerted the public. Honda, for example, knew about issues with faulty airbags in 2004 and kept quiet until 2008, when it issued a small-scale recall. And regulators failed to piece together clues that might have alerted them to systemic failures and ultimately saved lives.

Regulators need to send a clear message to car manufacturers and their suppliers that knowingly withholding information about faulty products will not be tolerated. They must hold the companies accountable and investigate customer complaints that could represent a broader trend. The Takata cover-up is the latest example of why companies cannot be trusted to police themselves.