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Highway Safety Agency to Investigate Honda Airbags

Caspar Benson | Getty Images

Honda just received one more reminder that it has not escaped the issue of defective airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into 320,000 Honda minivan to determine if they should be recalled for airbags that spontaneously deploy.

The safety agency said it received six complaints from owners of 2003-2004 Odysseys, three of which reported injuries, due to airbags that suddenly deployed while the vehicles were in operation, but not involved in collisions.

NHTSA has received an additional 41 consumer complaints alleging that the vehicle's airbag warning light illuminated. Airbag issues have plagued the Japanese maker during the last two years forcing more than 1 million vehicles to be recalled.

Honda is not the only maker that has been dealing with the issue. Other automakers, including Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Chrysler, General Motors and BMW, have recalled more than 3 million vehicles worldwide. In those cases, they had one common denominator: Takata Corp.

2003 Honda Odyssey
AP
2003 Honda Odyssey

The Japanese supplier of airbag inflators provided components to all of the companies. The reliance of automakers on a single source is a double-edged sword: they benefit from lower pricing due to economies of scale, but if there is a problem, they all face the same problem and the issues that come with it, which is massive recalls, in this case.

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While multiple makers have been impacted, Honda has the greatest exposure. However, the current investigation reveals how tied together the industry is when it comes to this problem.

In 2011, NHTSA was investigating inadvertent air bag deployments in Chrysler vehicles, when it discovered that the Odyssey used the same application-specific integrated circuit component within the airbag control module. As a result of the initial investigations, Chrysler Group recalled 3,660 2003-04 Viper cars to fix airbags that could deploy without warning.

In October, Chrysler recalled more than 920,000 vehicles worldwide over the issue after 215 reports of improper airbag deployments and 93 minor injuries—and nearly 750,000 in the United States. The earlier recall included the 2002-03 Jeep Liberty SUV and 2002-04 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Other makers were impacted as well.

(Read More: Popular Small SUVs Fail Critical Crash Test)

Toyota agreed to recall nearly 900,000 vehicles—2003-2004 Corolla/Matrix and Pontiac Vibe cars—for similar air bag problems in January "and will utilize a similar remedy to that of Chrysler consisting of adding an in-line noise filter to its air bag wire harness," NHTSA said.

While Honda has been in talks with NHTSA for several months about the same issue, the maker believes the electronic circuits in its airbags are faring better than the others.

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"Since no accident or property damage caused by air bag deployment of the driver frontal airbag has been reported, and the occurrence rate is extremely low, Honda will continue to handle these claims on a case-by-case basis, per usual practice," Honda told NHTSA a letter last December.

Honda said it found 126 airbag deployments in non-crash situations for frontal, side impact and/or side curtain air bag deployments across four models and 800,000 vehicles, NHTSA said, but no more than 25 of those are from frontal airbags.

Airbag problems are a serious embarrassment for Honda – complicating the fact that the maker already is on record as having one of the highest recall totals of any maker operating in the U.S. in recent years.

The last Honda recall involved approximately 426,000 subcompact Civic models sold during the 2001 to 2003 model-years, 43,000 CR-V crossovers offered in 2002 and 2003, and another 92,000 Odyssey minivans from the 2002 model-year.

(Read More: Bigger Is Better: SUVs and CUVs Rule the Road in China)

Additionally, the Japanese maker ordered the recall of 748,000 Pilot crossovers and Odyssey minivans in January due to missing rivets that could cause airbags to improperly deploy in an accident. It has experienced a number of earlier recalls for other airbag-related problems that have now added up to millions of vehicles.

While Honda's name seems to be most often tied to airbag investigations and recalls, the maker is not alone. Earlier this month, GM began investigating 400,000 additional vehicles for defective airbags.

Agency investigators are already determining if GM went far enough in issuing two small recalls for airbag problems in October 2012 and January 2013 regarding a defect in electrical connectors for the driver's front air bag in certain 2012 Chevrolet Cruze, Sonic and Camaro models as well as Buick Verano vehicles that could prevent the air bag from deploying in a crash.

GM recalled about 7,000 cars, but now NHTSA is investigating whether 400,000 2012 Chevrolet Camaros, Cruzes and Sonics and Buick Veranos should be included.

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The Detroit-based automaker initially issued a service bulletin in August to address the airbag defect in 2012 Cruze and Verano vehicles built before June 21, 2012. After talks with NHTSA, GM decided to address the issue as a safety recall covering about 3,000 2012 Cruze, Verano and Sonic vehicles built from April 2, 2012 to June 29, 2012.

After further analysis and discussion with NHTSA, GM conducted a second recall covering about 3,900 2012 Cruze, Verano, Sonic and Camaro vehicles built from Dec. 16, 2011 to Feb. 1, 2012.

-By CNBC Contributor Paul Eisenstein; Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau

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