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National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration Investigations and Recalls May Not Accurately Represent Car Safety

In 2012, about 16.2 million car and truck owners received notification that their vehicles had safety problems and were being recalled. However, despite the high number of recalls, according to the Center for Auto Safety, changed auto recall accounting methods are raising questions about the productivity of defect investigations. Additionally, according to John Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), investigations by the agency are taking longer than they should, meaning many drivers could be driving unsafe vehicles without being aware of it.

The Department of Transportation’s NHTSA has the authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles that have safety-related defects or do not meet Federal safety standards. Recalls are necessary when a vehicle or vehicle equipment (including tires) does not comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard or when there is a safety-related defect in the vehicle or equipment.

While manufacturers voluntarily initiate many recalls, auto companies are required to tell the NHTSA about claims they receive about serious injuries and deaths in their vehicles, so that NHTSA can then investigate the claims. Owners may also submit complaints to the NHTSA, prompting investigations.

Recall Accounting Methods Raises Safety Concerns

Due to budget issues, 28 NHTSA investigators handle every inquiry and complaint brought to the agency–meaning 28 individuals are responsible for investigating every automaker, truck maker or parts supplier.

In a recent New York Times article, David Strickland, current NHTSA administrator, argues that the limited number of investigators are sufficient due to new tools for data analysis, which allow the investigators to work more efficiently. Strickland added that NHTSA investigations resulted in 134 vehicle recalls in 2012, the second highest number since 1966.

According to the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, however, the total number of recalls does not accurately measure the agency’s productivity since one inquiry can generate dozens of recalls. Specifically, federal auto safety regulators are counting what used to be considered multiple recalls as one recall. For example, 61 of the 131 recalls reported in 2011 resulted from one investigation involving aftermarket sunroofs–any car dealership or business that installed a sunroof was listed as a separate recall. As a result, the number of investigations actually being carried out is far fewer than expected based on the number of recalls.

Defect Investigations Taking Too Long and Kept Secret

In 2011, the U.S. Transportation Department reported that not all investigations were being completely in a timely fashion. At that time, the Transportation Department reported that 40% of those cases investigated missed the deadline by an average of six months. More recently, however, NHTSA’s investigations into possible defects and safety issues have been taking much longer than the agency’s own 12 months guideline. According to Claybrook, a safety investigation into 2002-2005 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers took 42 months–well over the agency guidelines of 12 months.

Perhaps even more concerning, is the fact that information about the investigations is only available to the public and news media through a Freedom of Information Act request. Even then, carmakers can still request the information they submit to the NHTSA be kept confidential. This means that car buyers may not learn the vehicles they own or are thinking about buying have raised safety concerns at NHTSA and among auto manufacturers.

2013 Motor Vehicle and Related Recalls

Despite the concerns about the effectiveness of the NHTSA’s investigations, 2013 has already seen its fair share of recalls, including but not limited to the following:

  • In April 2013, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda announced a global recall of nearly 3.3 million vehicles because of a defect in the passenger air bag system
  • In March 2013, certain 2005 Honda Pilot SUVs, 2005 and 2006 Acura MDX luxury SUVs, and 2005 Acura RL sedans being recalled due to potential problem that could cause the brakes to trigger without a warning
  • In March 2013, Chrysler recalled certain 2013 Dodge Challenger vehicles because the battery cable may experience a short circuit.
  • In February 2013, Nissan recalled five of its 2013 models (Nissan Altima, Pathfinder SUV, Leaf, Sentra, and Infiniti JX35 SUV) for faulty sensors that may permanently turn off the front passenger airbag

If you or someone you know has encountered a problem with a vehicle defect that has caused serious injuries or wrongful death, contact an experienced San Antonio product liability lawyer at (800) 862-1260 for a free confidential consultation.

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