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Honda joins Chrysler, Toyota at center of air bag probe

6:45 AM, Jun 11, 2013   |    comments
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Honda has become the fourth automaker drawn into an air-bag defect investigation, in a case that's showing how an issue involving a single supplier can spread through the industry.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday announced that a preliminary investigation into air bags that can inadvertently deploy for no reason would include 320,000 Honda Odyssey minivans.

NHTSA says it has gotten six complaints involving the van's front air bag deploying without reasons, including three with injuries. NHTSA also received 41 complaints of air-bag warning lights illuminating, something that sometimes preceded the unexpected deployments in other makers' vehicles.

The inquiry into 2003 and 2004 Odysseys has not resulted in a recall, but a preliminary investigation can lead to one.

Honda joins three other automakers who have already ordered recalls regarding the same air-bag systems installed in models from the same era. In those cases, Chrysler recalled 919,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees, Liberty Crossovers and Dodge Viper performance cars and Toyota ordered fixes to 907,000 Corolla and Matrix vehicles. General Motors was drawn in due to its Pontiac Vibe, a Matrix sibling built by a joint venture.

All the vehicles had at least one critical part in a common: air bag controls made by TRW's auto parts division, based in Livonia, Mich. Reached for comment, TRW spokesman John Wilkerson said that in keeping with policy, reaction would have to come from the automakers themselves.

Safety advocates say the case underscores how federal safety regulators need to keep a close eye on suppliers, not just automakers.

"NHTSA needs to start looking at the suppliers more proactively," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. The key, he says, is more personnel at NHTSA who can look for safety-defect patterns earlier, before they blossom into a huge problems involving several automakers.

The Chrysler and Toyota recalls were traced to electronic damage to the control chip. Dashboard warning lights normally went on before the air bags inflated, Chrysler said. Both automakers remedied the potential problem by having dealers install electronic filters to protect the air-bag control module.

Honda says in a statement that it is monitoring the situation and is working with NHTSA. It says it has separately received up to 126 complaints of similar problems in various vehicles with the TRW part and has investigated them. But it says that remains a small number and that its application of the air bag system has key differences from how it was used by other makers.

In addition to the four automakers, NHTSA has sent inquiries to one other. The agency asked Jaguar Land Rover for "comparative" data on 2000 to 2004 models that used the same TRW parts, although it has not added any of the company's vehicles to the preliminary probe. Spokesman Stuart Schorr said it was determined that the automaker didn't have a problem.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY

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