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Was Honda Aware of a Takata Air Bag Design Defect as Far Back as 2009?

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Reuters recently confirmed with Honda that the automaker requested a design change to Takata air bags back in 2009—long before the encompassing recalls that have occurred over the last year.

According to a timeline of events created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the first official Takata air bag rupture occurred in February 2007, when a driver’s side air bag exploded in a 2001 Honda Civic. There was a previous rupture in 2004, also in a Honda (Accord), but Honda and Takata told the NHTSA that the incident was an anomaly.

Between 2007 and 2008, three more ruptures occurred, all in Honda Civic and Honda Accord vehicles. Honda implemented its first Takata air bag recall in November 2008, but included only about 4,000 vehicles. Takata had explained that the defect was caused by improper handling of the propellant in one of their plants, so the automaker believed the small recall would fix the problem.

It wasn’t long after that, however, in August 2009, that Honda “quietly requested a design change,” according to Reuters, asking Takata to produce a “fail-safe” inflator that would not be at risk for these explosions.

Did Honda Suspect a Takata Air Bag Design Flaw?

Reporters found the request from Honda when reviewing Takata presentations and internal memos. In response to inquiries from Reuters, Honda confirmed that they did ask for this design change. The automaker didn’t mention this before, however. This could make them and Takata more vulnerable in the ongoing Takata litigation, which includes over 100 federal lawsuits consolidated in the Southern District of Florida and dozens more state cases.

The evidence suggests that Honda, rather than believing that the four ruptures that occurred between 2007 and 2008 were anomalies, instead believed there may be a more significant design problem that needed to be addressed.

Honda didn’t start recalling vehicles in the millions until 2014. Rather, it implemented other smaller recalls in piecemeal fashion along the way, expanding the original 2008 recall in June 2009 after more air bags exploded. Another recall in July added some 2002 and 2003 Acura 3.2TL vehicles to the previous list that included only Civics and Accords.

Modified Design Seems to Almost Prepare for Air Bag Explosions

Honda defends its actions by stating that it requested the redesign not because it suspected a larger design flaw in most or all of the inflators, but rather because it wanted to “protect against the possibility of future manufacturing errors.”

Honda added that it didn’t notify the NHTSA at the time because the design change was in response to manufacturing errors, not a design defect.

Reuters explains that Takata did present an improved design to Honda between 2009 and 2011, suggesting modifications that added “vents in the inflator to channel pressure from an explosion away from a driver’s neck and torso,” almost as if preparing for the air bag to fail and trying to limit the damage when it did so.

Takata acknowledged that it tested and deployed several versions of the modified inflator at Honda’s request.