The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is widening its crackdown on air bags at risk of exploding. This is another case in which it has taken years for the government and car companies to come to grips with the full scale of a deadly automotive defect, demonstrating again that the nation’s vehicle safety monitors aren’t doing a good enough job.

Takata is one of a few firms worldwide that manufacture air bags. The bags at issue appear prone to deploy too violently, creating metal shards and propelling them toward people in the car. The problem has been linked to four U.S. deaths and many injuries.

Takata air-bag recalls have been going on since 2008, but evidence of the problem began emerging long before that. The company admitted last week that Honda sent it photos of a burst air bag in 2005 that it failed to investigate. Since then, the scale of the problem has grown alarmingly. Air bags in humid places seem to be more at risk, and recalls first focused on 8 million cars in humid climates. Last week the NHTSA began to push for a nationwide recall affecting perhaps 30 million cars.

That’s the right call, and it should have happened sooner. Cars can be driven in and out of humid regions. All owners deserve notice that they might have a defective air bag that should be replaced.

The bigger question is whether carmakers and the NHTSA are effectively monitoring and responding to aftermarket problems. This year it emerged that General Motors failed for years to fix faulty ignition switches in some cars. Now it seems that millions of Americans have been driving for years with dangerous air bags. Part of the problem appears to be what car companies have – or haven’t – been telling the NHTSA, and part of it is that the NHTSA doesn’t always pick up on significant problems in their early stages.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are looking for ways to improve the system. Meanwhile, there is at least one thing that already makes sense for them to pass: A bill that would reduce the routine secrecy surrounding court settlements in lawsuits concerning public safety or public health. There were air-bag-related proceedings as early as 2003. With more information on the public record, those in and outside of government would have a better chance of connecting the dots sooner.

Editorial by The Washington Post


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