By Trinna Leong
SIBU Malaysia (Reuters) – The death of a heavily pregnant Malaysian woman in a car crash on Borneo island in July opens a new front in a widening U.S. investigation into defective air bags that has triggered one of the biggest safety recalls in automotive history.
Law Suk Leh, 43, was driving her 11-year-old Honda City car in twilight on Sunday, July 27 when it collided with another vehicle making a turn across her lane at an intersection in a quiet industrial zone on the outskirts of Sibu, a town in the Malaysian-ruled northwest of Borneo.
According to local police, Law, who was wearing a seat belt, was hit in the neck by a single fragment of metal, nearly 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) in diameter, from the air bag that tore apart in the collision. The post mortem report showed she died from a "severe puncture wound on the neck".
Law and her 41-year-old Filipino husband were visiting family in Sibu ahead of the Eid public holidays. They had driven down from the nearby sultanate of Brunei where they lived and worked.
The 21-year-old driver of the other vehicle involved in the collision told Reuters he was taking family and friends to a local night market. He said an ambulance was called after the crash, but a pick-up truck driver offered to drive Law to the hospital.
"Me and the woman's husband carried her to the back of the pick-up. She had a hole in her throat and was bleeding badly. Her husband had a cloth covering her throat, trying to control the bleeding," he said.
"She was still alive, but couldn't speak."
Law was later transferred to an ambulance, but was pronounced dead en route to hospital, where a baby daughter was delivered alive, but died two days later, police said. Law's nephew, Law Ee Liang, said his aunt had just a week left of her pregnancy. Other members of Law's family declined to discuss the incident. Law also had a seven-year-old son, who possibly lives with his grandparents in Sibu, police said.
Law's husband, who told police their car was traveling at 60-70 km (37-43 miles) per hour, suffered minor injuries in the front passenger seat unrelated to the air bag, police said.
MORE CARS RECALLED
Confirming the fatal incident on Thursday, Honda Motor recalled another 170,000 of its cars to have the air bags replaced, taking its total recalls over potentially defective air bags made by Japan's Takata Corp to almost 10 million in recent years. About 7 million cars of other makes have also been recalled.
Law's is the fifth Takata air bag-linked fatality, and the first outside the United States. All have been in Honda cars.
Takata has said it is the subject of a U.S. criminal investigation over its air bags. Its executives, and those from Honda, its biggest customer, are expected to face congressional hearings in the coming week.
Takata has previously said problems with the inflator propellant – the explosive that allows the air bag to inflate in a fraction of a second on impact – can lead air bags to rupture, shooting shrapnel into the vehicle.
While humid Florida and the steamy island of Borneo are more than 16,000 kms (10,000 miles) apart, their sticky climates may hold a clue to some of the Takata-related fatalities.
In June, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was looking into whether driving in high humidity regions contributed to the risk of Takata air bag explosions. A line of inquiry has been that inflators can become dangerously volatile when the propellant is exposed to moisture – even years after installation.
Honda said its latest recall was due to a malfunctioning conveyor at a now-closed U.S. plant that may have exposed propellant tablets to moisture.
Honda's Brunei branch alerted the Japanese automaker to the Malaysian incident, police said, and a team of five investigators arrived in Sibu about two weeks later to collect the ruptured air bag. Police said Honda had contacted Law's family, but had no further details.
(Writing by Ian Geoghegan; Editing by Mark Bendeich)