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Third traffic death in US linked to Takata air bags

A fatal accident near Los Angeles last year of a 2002 Acura sedan involved a Takata air bag, the third death in the United States linked to a defective safety component made by the Japanese supplier, according to local officials and the automaker.

Devin Xu, 47, died in an accident in the parking lot of a bank in the commercial part of Alhambra in September 2013 even though he was wearing his seat belt, and the Los Angeles County Coroner's Department report cited "apparent facial trauma due to foreign object inside air bag."

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The report also cited "approximately two tears on the air bag itself" and blamed Xu's death on head injuries sustained when his car accelerated, struck three cars and collided with a building. U.S. safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating whether Takata air bag inflators made between 2000 and 2007 were improperly sealed, which could lead to the bag inflating with excessive force and potentially spraying metal shrapnel at occupants.

An employee sews an airbag at Takata's crash-testing facility in Auburn Hills, Michigan, August 19, 2010.
Getty Images
An employee sews an airbag at Takata's crash-testing facility in Auburn Hills, Michigan, August 19, 2010.

More than 16 million vehicles globally have been recalled for defective Takata air bags since 2008.

Xu was driving a green 2002 Acura TL sedan, a model with Takata air bags, a Honda spokesman said on Thursday. The Japanese automaker was never informed of the incident and "we're having to piece it together after the fact now," Honda spokesman Chris Martin said.

A Takata spokesman in the United States, Alby Berman, said in an email: "Beyond very recent media inquiries, Takata was never informed of the California incident."

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In 2009, Honda recalled 440,000 Civic, Accord and Acura 3.2 TL cars from model years 2001 and 2002 in the United States because the driver's air bag inflator could produce excessive internal pressure, causing it to rupture and spray metal fragments at vehicle occupants.

More of some of those models were recalled in early 2010.

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On Wednesday, Honda was accused by the Center for Auto Safety of underreporting injuries and deaths related to Takata's defective air bags. The safety advocacy group in a letter to NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman asked the agency to refer the matter for criminal investigation.

Honda said in a statement that last month it launched a third-party audit of "potential inaccuracies in its reporting" and will notify NHTSA when the process is complete. It said in the past it had not reported verbal reports of injury or death claims as that was not required by law but had changed that practice going forward.

In addition, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Markey and Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal expressed concern in a letter to NHTSA about the regional recall under way as part of the safety agency's current investigation and Honda's failure to report all injuries and accidents.

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NHTSA said it is working to establish a "new normal" for automakers and that is why it had asked for the regional recalls regarding the Takata air bags. It also said it is in contact with Honda regarding whether the automaker is in compliance with reporting requirements.