AUBURN HILLS, MI - AUGUST 19: A crash-test dummy is displayed at Takata's current crash-testing facility August 19, 2010 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Takata dedicated a new, high-tech 18,000 square-foot sled crash simulation facility today that cost $14.6 million and is expected to be built and operational by August of 2011. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/AFP

Tokyo, Japan - Takata has confirmed that US justice authorities have opened a criminal investigation into exploding airbags linked to at least five driver deaths.

A Takata spokesman said on Friday it was “dealing with” a subpoena from a grand jury in New York targeting the defect, but it declined to give further details.

“Of course, we are dealing with it,” he said. “We have also received an instruction from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States to deal with it.”

He added that the US federal grand jury and NHTSA had also told the firm to submit documents related to airbag problems.

The safety watchdog has expanded its “urgent” warning to owners of cars with affected airbags to take them to dealers to fix the problem immediately.

Some 16 million vehicles produced by 10 global makers have been recalled worldwide over worries that the Takata airbags in them can explode when inflating, firing potentially deadly shrapnel at the car's occupants.

Affected automakers include Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota.

Four deaths have been reported in the United States claiming to be related to the problem. On Thursday, Honda said an exploding airbag had also killed a woman in Malaysia, and it recalled a further 170 000 vehicles worldwide over the issue.

GRISLY INJURIES

On Friday, Honda's Malaysian unit said the unnamed woman was pregnant and that her unborn baby also died following the crash.

Honda spokesman Jordhatt Johan said: “Our hearts and sympathy go out to the individual and family who have been affected by this tragic accident.”

Police reportedly investigated at least one driver death in the US as a murder due to the woman's grisly injuries, until their focus switched to the vehicle's airbag.

The US criminal investigation comes amid lawsuits and regulatory probes against the 80-year-old company, whose top executives have been largely mute on the mounting crisis.

US Senator Claire McCaskill said: “When companies put their own profits ahead of the lives of American consumers, they deserve to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

“I'm pleased the US Attorney has taken swift action here to open a criminal probe.”

McCaskill's statement came as the powerful Senate Commerce Committee announced that it would hold a hearing on 20 November on the Takata airbag case, including how the company and US auto safety regulators have tackled the issue since the airbag recalls began in 2008.

The committee said: “The hearing will focus on how defective Takata airbags became installed in so many vehicles and the responses of both automakers and NHTSA to remedy the safety defect to protect consumers.”

AFP