Honda and Takata were aware of airbag inflator problems since 2004, a media report said.

The New York Times said there was a crash in Alabama in 2004 in which an airbag inflator exploded in a 2002 Honda Accord injuring the driver. There were three airbag ruptures in 2007 and Honda was said to have settled claims with the victims.

In 2008, a two-inch fragment hit a Civic driver in the neck when an airbag deployed after a 'minor accident'. Honda is believed to have settled with this driver as well. In another incident in 2009, the driver of an Accord is reported to have bled to death after the car's airbag fired shrapnel into her neck and chest.

Honda said it had taken "appropriate actions" after the first air bag rupture in 2004 "based on the information available at that time". The actions included alerting Takata and filing a required injury notice with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"In the absence of any other similar incidents before, or for years after, there was no evidence that indicated it was anything but an anomaly," the automaker added.

NHTSA said: "Honda did not provide us any additional information indicating that this (2004) incident involved an air bag rupture, nor do we have additional records from our other data sources for this incident that would have justified such follow-up."

A former senior enforcement official for NHTSA, Allan Kam, said: "This isn't a defect where you can expect a number of events to happen before you take notice. When you have something like that, you put all your resources into conducting a thorough investigation. You don't just delegate out the responsibility to your supplier."

The New York Times said there were multiple reasons for inadequate response to the risk of rupturing air bags - a weak regulatory agency, the industry's ability to report safety problems in a minimal way and a difference between what automakers reveal publicly and what they are aware of internally.