NHTSA apologizes for botched air bag warnings

The nation's top automotive safety official has issued an apology regarding the issuance of incorrect information about the number of vehicles equipped with faulty Takata air bags, which left motorists scrambling for answers earlier this week.

David Friedman, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said late Wednesday the agency "greatly" regrets that the information provided in its initial safety advisory was inaccurate. It had shorted the total number of vehicles with the air bags by 3.1 million, later correcting the information to include about 8 million vehicles.

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He also apologized for "significant problems" with its website, which was designed to allow car owners to check if their vehicle was affected. It was down for several hours after the warning went out.

David Friedman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
David Friedman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

"We have developed an effective workaround to the website problem that gets people the safety information they need now while we work to fix our system," Friedman said. "Protecting the American public is our top priority and we will leave no stone unturned in this investigation."

Friedman said the agency is engaged in an investigation and has "identified the problem" with Takata's air bags. He noted the agency is ensuring the cars are recalled in parts of the country "where there is a demonstrated risk." The agency has recently focused its Takata efforts on high-humidity regions, including U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico.

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That restricted geographic-based effort has drawn the ire of watchdog groups and politicians alike. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of The Center of Auto Safety, has been criticizing the move for months. He contends that in a highly mobile society, a vehicle sold into a dry region, such as New Mexico, might be traded in, moved through the used vehicle auction system and wind up in Miami.

Additionally, The New York Times reported that Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts planned to send a letter to NHTSA Thursday, chiding the agency for how it is handling the recalls.

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In an email, NHTSA said it has received the letter and "will respond directly to the Senators regarding their concerns. Public safety is NHTSA's top priority and the agency is working to establish a new normal for automakers."

—By CNBC contributor Michael Strong