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Despite Pressure from Public, Lawmakers, Are Unsafe Cars Still Sidestepping Recall Process?

GM ignition switch scandal could lead to crackdown.

by on Mar.17, 2014

A Jeep Grand Cherokee fire. The maker long fought a recall - but critics aren't happy with the final settlement.

Things were supposed to change a decade ago.  After an estimated 270 people were killed in rollover accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs and Firestone tires, Congress passed the so-called TREAD Act.  Short for the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, it was intended to create a new process by which manufacturers had to reveal known safety-related issues – while encouraging motorists to report their own complaints.

But while federal safety regulators and automotive industry officials alike insist the new process is working, there are plenty of skeptics – all the more in the wake of the recent revelations that General Motors may have known for more than a decade that many of its compact cars were equipped with faulty ignition switches that could inadvertently shut the vehicles off and disable their airbag systems – a problem that last month led to the recall of 1.6 million vehicles and which has been linked to at least 12 deaths.

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What some are dubbing “Switch-gate” has already spawned a series of investigations – including hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill, a preliminary Justice Dept. criminal probe, a query by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a new internal investigation at GM itself ordered by the maker’s new CEO Mary Barra.

The well-publicized scandal was clearly on Barra’s mind as, on Monday, the maker announced another three recalls – the covering 1.5 million cars, trucks and crossovers – for a series of potential problems, including a possible fire hazard with the Cadillac XTS luxury sedan.

The latest move “underscores the focus we’re putting on the safety and peace of mind of our customers,” declared Barra, who has to explain why GM not only long-delayed a recall for the defective ignition switches but scrubbed plans that could have replaced them years ago.   Going forward, she promised, “today’s GM” will “redouble” its effort to spot potential safety problems, “and resolve them quickly”

(Click Here for a primer on the GM ignition switch recall scandal.)

Convincing the public of that resolve might not be easy, however, especially for a company still trying to recover from the image hit it took coming out of a 2009 bankruptcy only with the help of a massive federal bailout. But GM is by no means the only maker that has had to overcome concerns about its commitment to safety.

(12 deaths or 300? Click Here for the story.)

Toyota and Honda have each recalled millions of vehicles over the last half decade – more than any other manufacturer, domestic or foreign.  The smaller brand this last weekend added 900,000 of its Odyssey minivans to the list due to a potential fire hazard.  Odyssey also faced recalls over the past year for faulty airbags and possible vehicle runaway problems.

Toyota, meanwhile, is still trying to settle a wave of lawsuits stemming from the so-called unintended acceleration problems that forced it to recall over 10 million vehicles in 2009 and 2010. Internal documents released prior to Congressional hearings revealed the maker celebrating its ability to talk federal regulators out of ordering a costly earlier recall.

Indeed, regulators are feeling a lot more gun-shy these days, critics questioning why NHTSA let GM sidestep a recall for the ignition switch issues despite the fact that the first reports of trouble were sounded as early as 2001.

The agency has nonetheless “been a lot more sensitive” to safety issues since former NHTSA Director David Strickland took a grilling on Capitol Hill over the leaked Toyota memo, suggests analyst Stephanie Brinley, of IHS Automotive.  Numerous industry officials involved in safety issues say that there’s far less of a collaborative atmosphere between automakers and automotive regulators compared to the approach taken during the industry-friendly Bush era.

But the question is whether things have changed enough, especially in light of what the TREAD Act was meant to accomplish?  NHTSA and the industry contend the process is working.  While final figures for 2013 haven’t been released, there has been a rise in recalls in recent years.  Experts contend that shows fewer problems are slipping through the cracks, rather than a decline in vehicle quality.

But critics like Clarence Ditlow, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety, aren’t so confident. Ditlow is quick to point to two separate investigations involving Chrysler’s Jeep brand. One led to the recall of about 1.4 million SUVs because of concerns their gas tanks could catch fire in the event of a rear-end collision. But that was barely half the 2.7 million Jeeps NHTSA originally targeted – and critics contended the “fix” was far from ideal.

Meanwhile, NHTSA last week ended another investigation into a reported fire risk involving the driver’s side power master window switch on 104,000 older Jeep Liberty models.  NHTSA said it scrubbed that investigation and others because there was not a “reasonable risk” to public safety.

“That’s not what the law says,” argued Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator considered one of both the agency’s and auto industry’s harshest critics. “That’s not the standard.”

(Fire risk leads to recall of 900,000 Honda Odyssey minivans. Click Here for the story.)

NHTSA and the industry contend not every possible problem can lead to a formal investigation – if for no other reason there are simply too many reports of potential safety issues, most of which eventually  prove not to be a real problem.  If anything, increased media scrutiny, they counter, has led both industry and regulators to increasingly err in favor of action – even over minor issues with no actual reports of trouble in the field.

One of the three new GM recalls was discovered internally and involves a “non-compliant” plastic panel that covers the passenger airbag in Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans. Translation: the plastic is a little harder than it should be.  There’ve been no actual crashes, injuries or even a single consumer complaint.

GM is going so far as to halt sales until it can replace the panel. Toyota took a similar step in January when it told dealers not to sell some of its most popular models, including the midsize Camry sedan, because a material used in heated seats was technically not in compliance with federal standards.

The maker decided to replace the fabric on vehicles in dealer lots — but has asked NHTSA to let it avoid recalling cars already sold to consumers.  In the past, Toyota might simply have lobbied the agency privately. But today, even when it wants to get out of a recall it recognizes it’s better to go public rather than look like it’s trying to hide a potentially serious safety issue.

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2 Responses to “Despite Pressure from Public, Lawmakers, Are Unsafe Cars Still Sidestepping Recall Process?”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    Let’s not confuse driver error with true defects. Repeatedly driving your SUV tires into the curb until you’ve damaged them and worn the rubber lettering completelty off the sidewall is NOT a tire defect but an operational abuse of the tire.

    That being said there is no reason why BMW should be allowed to sell dangerous cars for 6+ years (and they are still on the roadways) and not be forced to correct a dcoumented safety defect with the high pressure fuel pump on the x35i model vehicles.

    We need appropriate and intelligent recalls, not siren chasers out to cash in on anyone with deep pockets via fraudulent defect claims or claims that a large company should pay for consumer negligence such as tearing the sidewall off their tires or buying a cup of hot coffee and then pouring on their crotch and becoming a millionaire via Jackpot Justice.

  2. Toyota Hibrid 2007-2008 has some problem
    Wich tire electronic valve. The light is on
    And presure of the tire is ok I reset it and continued
    On I went to Toyota service, said that 2 of them
    Dont funtion .