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Takata fined $14k for every day it refuses to cooperate with airbag probe

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Yuya Shino/AP/File

(Read caption) Takata Corp is seen behind a pedestrian in Tokyo. Takata will be fined $14,000 every day it refuses to cooperate with a federal investigation into faulty airbags, the NHTSA said Friday, Feb. 20, 2015.

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The ongoing Takata airbag recall has been far, far more confusing than it should've been. Among the major problems:

1. A geographic system of recalls, limited mostly to southern U.S. states and territories. The crazy-quilt has been made even crazier by some automakers -- but not others -- subsequently widening their own recalls to include vehicles registered in other parts of the country.

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2. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has largely allowed car companies and Takata to dictate the terms of the recalls, instead of acting like a regulatory agency and issuing orders. 

3. Takata itself, which has refused to admit that millions of its airbags -- equipped with volatile ammonium nitrate propellant -- pose a safety hazard to drivers. To date, those devices have been linked to at least six deaths in the U.S. and Japan after exploding upon deployment.

Thankfully, problem #2 is finally being addressed. NHTSA says that, starting today, it will fine Takata $14,000 per day that the Japanese company refuses to take part in the agency's investigation of the airbag problem. NHTSA has also threatened to order depositions from Takata employees in both the U.S. and Japan.

Among NHTSA's chief grievances with Takata -- beyond its steadfast refusal to admit fault where driver's side airbags are concerned -- is the way in which Takata has supplied data to investigators. In a letter sent to Takata and dated today (PDF), NHTSA notes that Takata turned over 2.4 million pages of documents related to the company's airbag systems. However, none of that data has been indexed in a useful way, as NHTSA requires, leaving investigators to sift through the documents haphazardly in their search for information.

In the letter, NHTSA's chief counsel, O. Kevin Vincent, says that "Takata is neither being forthcoming with the information that it is legally obligated to supply, nor is it being cooperative in aiding NHTSA’s ongoing investigation of a potentially serious safety defect". Vincent closes by threatening to refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for a civil investigation if Takata doesn't comply with NHTSA's demands.

And SNAP. NHTSA's feistiness is late in coming, but better late than never.