Replacement air bags from Takata Corp. are safe — as long as they don't have a "batwing," an executive from the company told a Senate hearing.
Senators asked Takata Executive Vice President Kevin Kennedy whether consumers can be certain that the Japanese supplier isn't replacing recalled air bags with new ones that have the same defect.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., raised the possibility that replacement air bags could be recalled in the future.
Takata still hasn't determined exactly why its air bags can explode with too much force. The Japanese company believes the problem is related to long-term exposure to high heat and humidity.
Kennedy said the company has changed its design and is no longer using an inflator shaped like a batwing that was involved in eight fatal accidents. He also said Takata is using inflators made by its competitors and is continuing to improve its own designs.
"We feel very confident in the inflators we are making today," Kennedy said.
Senators say they're concerned that car owners are growing tired of recalls and are apathetic about getting their Takata air bag inflators replaced.
The inflators can explode with too much force and send shrapnel into the passenger compartment. So far they have been blamed for eight deaths and more than 100 injuries.
Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said the size of the Takata recall, which recently doubled to 33.8 million inflators and 32 million vehicles, is causing "recall fatigue and confusion." The large number also is causing delays in getting notices to consumers, he said.
The problem with the air bag inflators has persisted for more than a decade and impacts 11 automakers, including Honda, BMW and Toyota.
The safety agency has set up a special page on its website, safercar.gov, with information about the Takata recalls. But Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., suggested that many Americans aren't aware of the site.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., noted that the Federal Aviation Administration has 30 times the budget of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is in charge of investigating auto defects. The FAA has 6,000 employees, compared to 90 at NHTSA, Blumenthal said.
"Is that not a glaring deficiency?" Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal made his comment at a hearing on Takata air bags, which can explode with too much force, potentially injuring or killing front-seat occupants.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind noted that U.S. railways had just 10 deaths last year, but 700 government employees oversee them. In contrast, there were 32,719 lives lost on U.S. roads last year.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said NHTSA gets over 80,000 consumer complaints per year, but has only one person reviewing them for half a day. He said if the person spends four hours per day looking at complaints, that's over 80 complaints per hour, less than a minute each. "How and the world can you get it done?" asked Nelson.
"You can't," Rosekind said. "It's overwhelming."
Senators at a hearing about defective air bags disagree over whether the nation's highway safety watchdog deserves additional funding.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, says he will fight hard to get more money for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Nelson said this after displaying gruesome pictures of a Miami woman injured by a piece of shrapnel that flew out of her driver's side air bag after she was in an accident.
Air bags made by Takata Corp. have been linked to at least eight deaths.
But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said providing the agency with additional funding won't solve the problems outlined in a report from the Department of Transportation's inspector general. The report released Monday said the agency lacked proper processes for identifying potential safety problems.