The 2012 Buick Verano has been recalled for airbag prob... The 2012 Buick Verano has been recalled for airbag problems twice already, and NHTSA investigators are examining whether more cars may still be affected. (GM photo).
The federal government is investigating whether General Motors needs to issue a third recall to address persistent problems with airbags installed in four of the company's most popular models.

Approximately 400,000 cars could be affected.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has opened a recall query examining airbags installed in Chevy Camaro, Chevy Cruze, Buick Verano and Chevy Sonic for the 2012 model year.

The potential defect –- a shorting bar that may sometimes come into contact with airbag terminals -– could mean the driver-side airbags won't work during a crash.

General Motors has already issued two recalls to deal with this specific problem, the first of which came last October and affected 2,949 vehicles. The company expanded upon that recall in January, recalling an additional 3,896 vehicles. Now, NHTSA is questioning whether the scope of those recalls has been sufficient.

"If the condition is present, it would set an air bag warning light in the vehicle, and that should be a signal to a customer to immediately have his vehicle inspected for the condition," GM spokesperson Alan Adler said. "But this issue most often occurred during pre-delivery inspections at dealerships."

He said GM is cooperating with NHTSA's investigation.

Airbag recalls have been on the rise. Automakers set a dubious record with 23 airbag-related recalls in 2012, and they are on pace to top that this year. There have already been 17 airbag recalls during the first five months of 2013.

Many of the problems involve Takata, a global automotive supplier of seat belts and airbags. Takata products have been at the root of seven of the airbag recalls this year, and are the focus of the ongoing federal query into GM's recalls. In a written statement, NHTSA said a production issue involving the airbags "was not fully identified" during the previous recalls.

This would not be the first time there was a persistent problem in identifying the scope of cars affected by a Takata-related recall. Honda has issued six recalls since 2001, including five since 2008, involving Takata airbags potentially exploding and showering occupants with a lethal amount of metal shrapnel.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at and followed @PeterCBigelow.

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