In an escalation of penalties against automakers that skirt safety laws, the nation’s top auto-safety agency has fined Honda Motor a record $70 million for grossly underreporting to the government fatal accidents and injuries, regulators said Thursday.
The penalty doubles a fine levied against General Motors last year as the agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), faces scrutiny for being slow to identify safety problems and failing to use the full extent of its legal powers.
Honda, the agency said, broke the law in two ways, each earning the maximum fine of $35 million. It did not report hundreds of death and injury claims to the agency for the past 11 years, or certain warranty and other claims in the same period.
Both types of reports are considered crucial to helping regulators identify potential safety defects.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- As thousands of athletes get coronavirus tests, nurses wonder: What about us?
- Obese Americans could be prioritized for coronavirus vaccine
- For Trump, 20 days of fantasy and failure
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- Available bed 'a gift' at hospital where patients marvel that others do not take COVID-19 seriously VIEW
“Today’s announcement sends a very clear message to the entire industry that manufacturers have responsibility for the complete and timely reporting of this critical safety information,” Mark Rosekind, the new head of the agency, said Thursday.
The unfiled claims included eight — one involving a death — for problems with air bags made by the Japanese supplier Takata, which itself has been embroiled in a safety crisis that has spurred the recall of millions of vehicles worldwide.
The air bags can explode violently when they deploy, sending metal fragments flying into the vehicle; five deaths have been linked to the defect.
Honda, the automaker most affected by the Takata recalls, said it used other channels to report those eight claims but it did not specify how. As far back as 2004, Honda had received news of rupturing air bags, The New York Times reported in September.
Under a system called Early Warning Reporting, automakers are required to disclose claims they receive that blame vehicle defects for serious injuries or deaths.
In November, Honda disclosed it had consistently underreported claims for more than a decade. An internal audit found it had not reported 1,729 written claims or notices of injuries or deaths from mid-2003 through mid-2014, more than the 900 reports it did make for that period.
A Honda employee identified the problem in 2011, and regulators notified Honda of potential underreporting in 2012, but the company did not take action until September 2014. In November, the agency demanded Honda submit more information on its reporting.
“We have resolved this matter and will move forward to build on the important actions Honda has already taken to address our past shortcomings in early warning reporting,” Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America, said in a statement Thursday.
Honda has 60 days to retroactively comply with reporting under the law and is required to submit all the missing death and injury information from the 11-year period.
Honda said in a statement that the reporting failures stemmed from data-entry programming and coding errors, and a too-narrow and sometimes inaccurate interpretation of regulations.
Anthony Foxx, U.S. secretary of transportation, gave little credence to Honda’s explanation. “Good intentions don’t help the automaker,” he said.
He said the safety agency had alerted the Justice Department to Honda’s reporting problems, but that it would be up to the Justice Department to decide about a criminal investigation.
The penalty against Honda follows multimillion-dollar penalties against three other automakers last year.
In May, regulators imposed a penalty of $35 million against GM after it failed to report for more than a decade an ignition defect in the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars that has been linked to at least 42 deaths.
In August, the agency levied a penalty of nearly $17.4 million on Hyundai for not reporting in a timely manner a defect that affected braking in its cars. In October, the agency fined Ferrari $3.5 million for failing to submit Early Warning reports on fatal accidents.