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US safety agency orders air bag maker Takata to preserve parts for investigations

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DETROIT — U.S. safety regulators have ordered Japanese air bag maker Takata Corp. to preserve air bag parts from recalled cars for government investigators and attorneys who are suing the company.

The order issued Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration covers air bag inflator mechanisms that can explode with too much force, spewing metal shrapnel into drivers and passengers. At least six people have been killed and 64 others injured from the problem. Ten different automakers have recalled about 17 million cars and trucks in the U.S., and recovered inflators have been sent to Takata.

The order stops Takata from destroying inflators except when they are tested and requires the company to set aside 10 percent of them for testing by plaintiffs' lawyers. Takata also has to come up with a plan, to be approved by the government, for gathering and preserving the inflators.

And the company must make inflators available to the 10 automakers, who are close to hiring an outside company and a leader for their own investigation of the air bag problems.

Takata, in a statement Wednesday, said it worked with NHTSA on the evidence preservation order and will support efforts by the agency and automakers to find the cause of the problem. "Determining the root cause of the inflator issues has been and remains our top priority," the statement said.

Takata uses ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that quickly inflates its air bags. But government investigators say the chemical can burn faster than designed if exposed to prolonged airborne moisture. That can cause it to blow apart a metal canister meant to contain the explosion. Automakers, Takata and the government all want to find out just how much humidity and time it takes to cause the problem, both of which are unknown.

So far, automakers have recalled about 22 million cars globally due to Takata inflators. There could be as many as 30 million vehicles with Takata air bags across the U.S.

At least 70 lawsuits have been filed over the air bag malfunctions in courts across the nation, according to NHTSA.

Wednesday's order comes less than a week after NHTSA began fining Takata $14,000 per day for failing to cooperate fully in the investigation, an allegation that Takata denies. The cooperation still isn't sufficient, the agency said, so the fines grew to $84,000 as of Wednesday.

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