Whatever Happened to Company Doe?

For now, Company Doe – the first to launch a court challenge against the publication of a complaint in saferproducts.gov, the publicly accessible database mandated under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, will remain anonymous. A July ruling by a U.S. District Court judge, made public yesterday, maintains the seal on any records that identify the company, the product or the facts of the dispute.

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Toyota Power Window Fires and Excessive Lubrication: A Worldwide Epidemic

Question for the lads and lassies over at the Office of Defects Investigation: Are you going to penalize Toyota for waiting three years to recall a variety of models in the U.S. for power window switch fires, after it launched recalls for 770,540 substantially similar vehicles of the same model years in China, New Zealand and Japan in August and October of 2009?

The power window door fire issue got our attention February, when NHTSA opened Preliminary Evaluations into power window switch fires in the General Motors 2006-2007 Chevy Trailblazers and several 2007 Toyota models, including the Camry, the RAV4, the Highlander Hyrbrid and the Yaris. Consumers were reporting spontaneous burn incidents emanating from the power window switch area, starting –  but not always ending – with smoke and noxious odors. Few injuries; but many of the incidents happened while the vehicle was underway, and let’s face it, interior compartment fires are very distracting while driving.

It was NHTSA’s preliminary theory that perhaps the two automakers shared a common window switch supplier that would explain the defect trend.  And, both investigations proceeded together closely in parallel – like VPA1 and VPA2 circuits on the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor in some early model Toyota Camrys. (Sorry, we can’t resist a little Unintended Acceleration humor.)  In mid-June, ODI bumped both PEs up to Engineering Analyses, and it turned out that GM and Toyota did not share suppliers.

GM was the first to concede the need for a recall. On August 17, GM recalled 249,260 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL, 2006-07 Chevrolet Trailblazer; GMC Envoy; Buick Rainer; SAAB 9-7x; and lsuzu Ascender s in a slew of states because fluid could seep into the door module, causing corrosion and a short that could render the power window or door locks inoperable, and in some cases, ignite.

Changes to Recall Regs: A Ray of Sunshine!

When is a safety recall not really a safety recall?  When the manufacturer submitting the Part 573 Defect and Non-Compliance Report (49 CFR Part 573) says it isn’t.

The Recall Management Division’s files are dotted with many such non-admission admissions. For example, in February, Goodyear recalled nearly 41,000 of its Silent Armor Tires in six sizes. The company conceded that these tires had high rates of warranty and property damage claims, and that the tire’s lack of robustness could result in a partial tread separation and a crash. Three months earlier, two Texas college students died in a rollover crash, after the left rear Silent Armor tire on the pick-up truck suffered a tread separation.

Goodyear, however, “found no safety issues” and deemed its recall a “customer satisfaction campaign,” to NHTSA.

If NHTSA’s proposed changes to the recall regulations are eventually adopted, the practice of manufacturers making signing statements will end. The agency is also proposing to require automakers to file defect and non-compliance reports via the Internet, including notices of foreign recalls. The agency is proposing asking manufacturers to submit the specific Vehicle Identification Number for each recalled vehicle, so that consumers can search a recall by their vehicle’s specific VIN. Unfortunately, there appears to be no such provision for the Tire Identification Number (TIN). Manufacturers will continue to submit TIN ranges only, and there will be no Web portal, which the public can use to determine if a specific tire has been recalled.

Further Tinkering to EWR Unlikely to Make it More Useful

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing amendments to the Early Warning Reporting system, ostensibly to sharpen it as a tool in the Office of Defects Investigation’s back pocket, but outside researchers who regularly parse EWR data say that the proposal misses huge opportunities to actually make the system better. 

In 2000, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco. The Early Warning Reporting system, a major component of the legislation, requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage and warranty data to the government on a quarterly basis. The information was supposed to help government investigators identify defect trends before they become full-blown debacles.

And yet, nearly a decade later, EWR did nothing to prevent the Toyota Unintended Acceleration disaster that has resulted in deaths, injuries, property damage crashes, 11 recalls related to floor mat entrapment, trim panel interference and sticking accelerator pedals, the alleged causes of the unintended acceleration complaints. So, you might expect that the agency, which could never have seen that one coming – what with the numerous consumer petitions pleading for answers, serial investigations into the problem, and recalls that never seem to make the complaints go away – would adjust its EWR reporting categories accordingly.

CPSC Considers Slight Change to Policy of Announcing Defects; World Ends

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a policy change to the way it publicly confirms that it has opened a defect investigation, leading the manufacturing community to issue a DEFCON 1 alert.

Currently, under the Section 6b of the Consumer Product Safety Act, manufacturers have a lot of control over what negative information the CPSC can disclose about them. The CPSC cannot disclose information that falls within the envelope of trade secrets or “misleading” and “inaccurate” information.  The CPSC can disclose the existence of an investigation, under procedures designed to ensure the accuracy of whatever information is made public. The CPSC gives manufacturers 10 days to review any statements about their products, and typically the two entities release agreed-upon language.

“What is very important to take into account is that we adhere to 6b,” says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “It is not a wall to disclosure. It’s a hurdle. As the Chairman (Inez Tennenbaum) has stated: “We do follow that law and we follow it in very prescribed ways.”

 In the past, the CPSC waited until the press took an interest in an alleged defect to initiate the 10-day review period. The proposed policy change, explained to manufacturers and their trade associations at a CPSC Safety Academy held in Bethesda, Maryland late last month, was an alternative to “approaching a company in a rushed situation, in which the media is asking for immediate confirmation, which at times we cannot give because the company is given 10 days to respond. We are considering a policy approach that starts the clock at an earlier stage. The same rights are given, but we prepare ahead of time for potential requests.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, lost no time in firing off a letter with apocalyptic overtones:

Lexus RX Floor Mat Recall: NHTSA’s House of Cards Adds a New Floor

An examination of NHTSA records surrounding a June recall for floor mat interference in 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used mischaracterized data to buttress its request that Toyota recall the floor mats. Further, NHTSA ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause for the unintended acceleration complaints consumers filed with the agency.

These documents affirm the pattern that has characterized NHTSA’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations – both informal and official -- since 2004:

  1. Dismiss the consumer’s description of the event, unless it conforms to the agency’s presumption of driver error or mechanical interference.
  2. Accept the explanations of the automaker or dealership of driver error or mechanical interference as completely accurate – even in the absence of any empirical evidence to support the contention.
  3. Dismiss any evidence of an electronic cause
  4. Settle for a limited, ineffective recall.
  5. Wait for another high-profile incident, consumer petition or accumulation of complaints to repeat the process

SRS has been examining the factual underpinnings of NHTSA’s actions in Toyota Unintended Acceleration since 2009. As we have in the past, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to Toyota’s most recent floor mat recall. We received 58 pages of documents, some of which were redacted under FOIA exemptions for confidential business information, personal identifying information and sections deemed “deliberative process.”

As we don’t know what information lies behind the redactions, we cannot assess the totality of the evidence behind NHTSA’s decision to seek a floor mat recall. However, what the unredacted portions show is there is scant evidence of a widespread floor mat interference problem and there is even less logic in the complaints NHTSA claims support its argument that a problem with the mats exists. But, there is much more evidence in the narratives of consumer complaints suggesting electronic causes of UA in 2010 Lexus RX 350.

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