Honda Death Probed as Homicide Adds to Air Bag Scrutiny – Bloomberg

Posted: Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Florida Highway Patrol is
investigating the death of a Honda Accord driver to determine
whether she was killed by the crash or by the car’s air bag.

The death of motorist Hien Thi Tran was initially
investigated as a homicide because deep cuts on her neck weren’t
consistent with crash injuries, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Kim
Montes said in an interview yesterday. The Orange County
Sheriff’s Department is now blaming the death on the air bag and
this week turned the inquiry back over to the highway patrol,
she said.

The death may add to two known incidents in which a faulty
air bag in a Honda Motor Co. (7267) vehicle — rather than the crash
itself — was responsible for killing the car’s occupant.
Federal regulators also have been in contact with Honda about
whether it has been underreporting death and injury claims to
regulators.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had
already been conducting an industrywide investigation of air
bags that may deploy with too much force, causing metal
fragments to kill or injure vehicle occupants. Tokyo-based
Takata Corp. (7312) — a major supplier of air-bag inflators to Honda,
Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) and Nissan Motor Co. — is at the center of
that investigation, which also includes questions about how the
car companies responded to defects with the components.

Honda said yesterday it’s examining whether a faulty air
bag was to blame for the death last year of a man who crashed
his Acura sedan in a California parking lot. The automaker has
acknowledged two previous deaths from the air bags, which can
deploy with excessive force in some conditions.

It’s too early to draw any conclusions about the Florida
crash, said Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman.

Orlando Crash

Tokyo-based Honda is Takata’s biggest customer and has said
it’s called back 6 million vehicles for problems with air bags
in nine recalls since 2008. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Ford
Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Mazda Motor Corp. also have
recalled cars with Takata air bags.

In the recent Orlando, Florida, crash, the 51-year-old
victim turned in front of an oncoming car, according to the
Sept. 29 Florida Highway Patrol report. The driver died from her
injuries on Oct. 2.

The death wasn’t considered crash related because, “the
force of the crash was not significant to cause great bodily
harm to any occupant in both vehicles,” according to the
report. There were no broken windows or other debris that
explained the injuries, so the investigators said the crash was
caused “due to a medical condition that occurred prior to the
crash,” according to the report.

The Florida Highway Patrol will now conduct its own
investigation to determine if the air bag caused the injuries,
which will probably take at least a month, Montes said.

California Death

“The first that we’ve heard of this crash was from media
sources yesterday,” Honda’s Martin said in an e-mail of the
Florida incident. “We have not been formally notified, and have
not had an opportunity to perform an inspection of the
vehicle.”

In the crash in California, Hai Ming Xu was driving his
2002 Acura TL into a parking spot when he accelerated and
crashed into a wall after striking several other vehicles,
according to a police report of the September 2013 accident. He
died after being struck by a piece of metal that blew out as the
airbag deployed, according to the death report, reviewed by
Bloomberg News.

“The airbag had a metallic portion that hit the deceased
on the face as it deployed,” according to the report, which
referred to the driver as Devin Xu. “The strength of the impact
was high enough as to produce a sudden, strong movement of the
brain inside the skull which produced the bleeding.”

Takata Response

If Xu’s fatal injuries are linked to an air-bag fault, it
would represent the third such fatality in Honda and Acura
vehicles, the Honda spokesman said earlier.

Takata wasn’t informed of the California incident beyond
very recent media inquiries and will continue to support the
NHTSA investigation and customers’ field actions, a spokesman
for the parts supplier, Alby Berman, said in an e-mail.

Takata also wasn’t aware of the Florida accident. We will
support our customer’s investigation, Berman said.

The Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group in the U.S.,
accused Honda earlier this week of failing to report all air-bag-related injuries and a deaths to a government database as
required. The center’s Oct. 15 letter to David Friedman, NHTSA’s
deputy administrator, also called for the U.S. Justice
Department to conduct a criminal investigation into Honda’s
reporting.

Honda, in an Oct. 15 statement, said it’s asked a third
party to audit “potential inaccuracies” in the quarterly Early
Warning Reports it’s required to file to NHTSA. The automaker
said it will soon share the results of the audit, which began in
September, with the regulator.

Excessive Moisture

Honda didn’t name models or parts related to potentially
underreported claims. The company has reported to NHTSA all of
the deaths and injuries that it has confirmed are related to
air-bag inflators, Martin said. He declined to give figures.

Honda was only recently made aware of the September 2013
accident, which took place in Alhambra, California, and is
reviewing it, Martin said. Thus, he said, it couldn’t be
included in the early-warning database. It wasn’t possible to
reach a representative for the driver, Xu.

In August, Takata said it would probably record an annual
loss on recalled air bags. NHTSA and Takata are investigating
whether excessive moisture played a role in air-bag ruptures
reported mostly in high-humidity areas.

Extra Scrutiny

Recalls are getting extra scrutiny in the U.S. after
General Motors Co. (GM) told NHTSA in February it had delayed action
for more than a decade on a vehicle defect that so far has been
linked to 27 deaths. After congressional hearings and an
internal investigation, GM fired 15 employees and has agreed to
work with regulators to ensure better compliance. Automakers in
the U.S. have recalled a record 51.8 million vehicles this year.

Honda’s audit announcement has the potential to place a
second big automaker under heightened U.S. scrutiny. It may also
lead to more recalls than have been mounted this year by GM,
because Honda and other automakers keep adding new recalls to
fix air-bag problems, said Karl Brauer, an analyst for Kelley
Blue Book in Irving, California.

“I would sure like to know, for sure, how many people have
had serious injuries or deaths from these air bags and how many
models are involved,” Brauer said. “Every time they seem to
think they’ve got it, they keep recalling more.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan at
jgreen16@bloomberg.net;
Jeff Plungis in Washington at
jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Romaine Bostick at
rbostick@bloomberg.net;
Jamie Butters at
jbutters@bloomberg.net
Niamh Ring

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