Senate Takes Up Recalled Rental Bill

The Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee will hold hearings tomorrow on a bill that would prohibit car rental companies from renting vehicles that are under a safety recall until they are remedied.

Called the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2013, the bill is a bi-partisan affair, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and supported by the car rental companies.

The namesakes of the bill, Raechel Houck, 24, and her 20 year-old sister, Jacqueline Houck, died in an Enterprise Rent-A-Car 2004 PT Cruiser on October 7, 2004 in a fiery collision while northbound on Highway 101 in Monterey County. The driver, Raechel Houck, lost control of the vehicle, crossing the median and crashing into an 18-wheeled Freightliner tractor trailer. The driver of the truck testified that he could see smoke pouring from the PT Cruiser’s engine compartment just before it veered into the southbound lanes.

Chrysler had recalled 439,000 2001-2004 PT Cruiser and the 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible a month earlier. The September 9, 2004 recall noted that the power steering hose could rub against the transaxle differential cover, eventually resulting in a steering fluid leak and an underhood fire. By the time of the Houck crash, Chrysler had reported a total of 126 PT Cruiser fires, beginning in 2000. Despite the recall notice, Enterprise had rented the PT Cruiser that crashed to three other customers before the Houcks. On the day of the crash, the PT Cruiser was the only vehicle available and Enterprise employees offered it to the Houck sisters as a free upgrade.

Moving Tire Recalls into the 21st Century

Safety Research & Strategies has urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to add Tire Identification Numbers to a newly mandated web portal to identify recalls.

In September, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the possible changes to the provisions regarding Early Warning Reporting data. It also proposed requiring automobile manufacturers to submit Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) of specifically recalled vehicles, and maintain records of the recall remedy status of each specific vehicle. This was a requirement of the Motor Vehicle Safety Improvement Act, contained within the highway re-authorization bill known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, MAP-21, for short.

The recall statute mandates that NHTSA require that motor vehicle safety recall information be made available to the public on the Internet, and authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to require each manufacturer to do so. In the NPRM, NHTSA explained that it already had a website where consumers can look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number.  It proposed to simply add a VIN field to its current search capacity.

The authors of MAP- 21, however, forgot to require the same of tire manufacturers. SRS has submitted comments to this docket suggesting that the agency add a TIN-look-up, along with a VIN.

The omission is another sad chapter in the history of the Tire Identification Number (TIN) and tire safety. The Tire Identification Number has its origins in a Rubber Manufacturers’ Association strategy to seize the regulatory reins from the National Highway Safety Bureau, predecessor to NHTSA, as the tire identification standard was promulgated more than 40 years ago. It was established to help consumers identify tires in a recall. But, as is the case in many rulemakings, industry fought hard to mold the regulations to its own ends and convenience.

Burning Question: Why are Some Manufacturers Investigated for Door Fires, Others Not?

Karen Swicker’s used 2002 Subaru Outback was new to her – less than a year old, when the driver’s side door ignited as she drove look along a Newburyport, Massachusetts road on February 16. The first puff of smoke sent her to the side of the road. As she came to a stop, the wisps had turned to a cloud. When the Fire Department pulled the door off, it burst into flames, and fire fighters had to cut the electrical wires from the harness.

This might have made a memorable entry in Subaru’s new marketing campaign, First Car Story, in which a driver can used an automated computer program with music and graphics to wax poetic about the elderly El Dorado with the duct-taped bumper that ferried him and his friends to the malt shop.

As Alan Bethke, Subaru of America’s director of marketing communications said in a statement: “The First Car Story campaign provides a creative outlet for reliving those unique, funny, unforgettable car experiences anyone who had a first car can relate to.”

Keeping Automakers’ Sales Truly Safe: The Edmund’s Conference

SRS was in attendance, Tuesday, as the cyber sales team at Edmund’s ushered in a “new chapter in the conversation between government, the auto industry, safety advocates, academics and consumers, marked by thoughtful, data-driven contributions from all.”

It was written amid cocktails and at more sobering and highly-scripted venues inside the Newseum, the 250,000 square-foot monument to journalism in Washington DC.  If Edmund’s is going to author the new chapter on safety, consumers beware.

In the conference brochure, Edmund’s CEO Jeremy Anwyl tells participants that the Toyota Unintended Acceleration crisis was the impetus for the meeting: “Edmunds.com watched as a shallow conversation made international headlines. We felt uneasy about the lack of real discussion taking place among smart people with the power to change laws, introduce technology and educate drivers.”

CPSC Puts Information in Hands of Consumers

After taking comments from the public, and by that we mean, the remarks of a handful of advocates and consumers and the complaints of 33 trade organization reps and business owners, the U.S. Product Safety Commission is now preparing to vote on a Final Rule to establish a consumer complaint database.

The database represents a sea-change in the accessibility of consumer product information, wresting control from manufacturers, who held sway over the flow of public information for nearly three decades.

SRS President Sean Kane, who testified before the CPSC at a public hearing on the database, urged the agency to build a public database by fusing sufficient detail on the product and problem and public availability of the data in a timely fashion.

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010: A Crisis Well Spent

Congress has never been one to let a motor vehicle crisis go to waste, and the Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration debacle has been no exception. Hearings before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has revealed some distressing regulatory gaps – such as a federal motor vehicle safety standard for accelerator controls that was established in 1972 and has never been amended to account for electronic throttles.

Toyota’s Credibility Gap Assumes Grand Canyon Proportions

Yesterday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Sub-committee rendered its verdict after conducting interviews with key personnel from Toyota and Exponent and reviewing some 100,000 Toyota- and NHTSA-produced documents about the much-heralded “exhaustive” efforts to determine if there was a connection between Sudden Unintended Acceleration and Toyota’s electronic throttle control system: Toyota lied.

While the committee and sub-committee chairs, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) respectively, did not state things quite so baldly, they came darned close in their opening statements:

Toyota: Honesty is More Than Just a Word

When Toyota starts talking about honesty – as they did, while paying a $16.4 million fine for violating the recall regulations – we start patting down the data. An interesting snippet floated by yesterday. As our readers know, manufacturers are required to file Early Warning Reports every quarter – information about legal claims, warranty data, production numbers, deaths and injuries – to help NHTSA spot emerging defect trends.

This regulation, enacted as part of the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act with great speed and good intentions, has had its share of problems. There was the four-year battle over what information would be public. (The agency and safety advocates envisioned a largely public data system; the manufacturers had an entirely different idea. Guess who won?). Then there has been the suggestion that EWR has not actually been useful as a statistical canary in a coalmine. Now we’re going to have to raise a few questions about coding.

Waxman Probes Toyota’s Deal with Doubt

When the auto industry needs America’s best scientific minds to validate a foregone conclusion, they turn to Exponent. As we reported during Toyota Tactics Week, David Michaels called out the Menlo Park, California defense-litigation firm in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health:

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