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.

The Safety Record Special Report: How Consumer’s Union Shocking Child Seat Tests Forced the Recall of the Evenflo Discovery

Editor’s note: The Safety Record spent more than a year seeking the documents related to Recall 08C002 involving Evenflo Discovery child restraint.  The Safety Record undertook this project because the defect was serious, resulting in a recall of more than 1 million seats. Yet, much the public record explaining how this recall came about was missing, and, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was not forthright in its actions or in its public statements in February 2008. The Safety Record is committed to ensuring that the public record is complete and to bringing transparency to NHTSA’s important regulatory and investigative activities in the interest of government accountability. Documents obtained following the successful settlement of Safety Research & Strategies litigation against NHTSA show that the Evenflo recall was the result of secret investigations and behind-the-scenes exchanges between the agency and Evenflo. This Special Report, in part, is based on these records.  

On September 19, 2005, Isaac Neal Eslinger died of his injuries in a rollover crash that occurred the day before. He was seven months old. His mother Debra was at the wheel of the family’s 1996 Isuzu Oasis van, travelling north on Highway 6 towards Mandan, North Dakota. According to the police report of the crash, the last thing Debra Eslinger remembered was glancing back at her daughter, before realizing that she had swerved onto the shoulder of the other side of the road. Debra tried to correct her steering, but lost control of the van. It rolled over and came to rest in a ditch on the east side of the highway.

Debra, who was wearing her seatbelt, and her three-year-old daughter, secured in a child safety seat, survived the crash without any injuries. The Evenflo Discovery infant seat holding Isaac, however, detached from its base in the crash. Isaac, still strapped in the seat, was pitched out of the van. He died of a skull fracture and head injury.

Isaac’s father, Neal Eslinger, a chiropractor in Bismarck, paid tribute to his only son on a blog he writes, called My Living Strength:

“Isaac has a spirit presence that warmed all hearts. He was a “master of smiling” as he displayed his prominent dimples, twinkling eyes and his unique laughs, giggles and squeaks. The mere glimpse of his mother or sound of her voice would bring a smile and a laugh that truly was an honor to witness. …Isaac was a gift from God and he always was and always will be “Our Little Angel.” Words cannot express the blessings he brought into our lives.”

Three weeks after the crash, on Oct. 7, 2005, Isaac Eslinger’s death in an Evenflo Discovery infant seat was reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fifteen months later, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation came looking for the crash report.

January 2007 would turn out to be a turning point for the popular infant carrier combination car seat. A controversial Consumer Reports story claimed that sled-tests showed that some models of the Discovery had a tendency to separate from its base under the stress of crash forces. This wasn’t actually news. A spate of infant deaths and injuries linked to base separations had initiated a low-level NHTSA investigation in 2004. But that probe was closed four months later with no defect finding.

NHTSA and Evenflo swiftly dispatched the Consumer Reports story by pointing out that its side-impact sled tests were actually conducted at a much higher rate of speed than the story claimed. Within weeks, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, printed a retraction, withdrew the story and apologized to its readers. But one year later, NHTSA and Evenflo announced that the juvenile products manufacturing firm was recalling 1.1 million Discovery infant carriers because testing by both parties showed that it could separate from its base in a side impact.

In the three-and-a-half year gap between the closing of the first investigation and the recall of the Discovery infant carrier were two secret NHTSA defects investigations into the infant carrier’s propensity for seat base separations, the discrediting of a consumer advocacy organization that attempted to raise the bar on child restraint safety, and more child injuries and deaths in crashes that resulted in base separations.

The recall was five years ago, but questions about its origins linger. Save a flurry of stories published about CU’s testing mistake and retraction, and fewer when the recall was announced a year later, the record surrounding this child safety defect has remained hidden from public view. Increasingly, this appears to be by design. NHTSA frequently hides the extent of its investigative activities and its negotiations with industry. If no formal Preliminary Evaluation or Engineering Analysis is opened, the public record is never established. This secrecy has been the subject of criticism by safety advocates, who say that it allows the agency to avoid accountability, and by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General. In an October 2011 audit, the OIG criticized the Office of Defects lack of documentation and transparency:

“Without comprehensive documentation of pre-investigation activities, ODI’s decisions are open to interpretation and questions after the fact, potentially undermining public confidence in its actions.” Noting NHTSA’s failure to document meetings with manufacturers, OIG recommended “a complete and transparent record system with documented support for decisions that significantly affect its investigations.”

In November 2011, Safety Research & Strategies filed a Freedom of Information Request for the communications between NHTSA and Evenflo surrounding February 2008 recall. When NHTSA responded that it had no such documents, SRS appealed – arguing that the simultaneous press releases issued by NHTSA and Evenflo showed that each entity knew about the other’s test results on the Discovery – evidence of communication between the two. In April, after NHTSA did not respond to SRS’s appeal, the company filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court to obtain the documents. In February, SRS and the Department of Transportation settled the lawsuit, after NHTSA released all of the documents it said were in its possession. The Department of Transportation paid SRS’s costs and legal fees of $14,281. 

Toyota: The Other Numbers

This morning National Public Radio reported Toyota sold 5 million vehicles in the last six months.  These strong sales numbers mean the company may be poised to regain the number one automaker slot from GM.  This talk of Toyota numbers had us here at Safety Research & Strategies looking at some other data -- complaints involving Toyota unintended acceleration and what’s been reported publicly in the last year.

And we would be remiss if we failed to note Toyota’s latest directive to the press about how to properly address Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane.  But first, the numbers:  We reviewed unintended acceleration incidents involving Toyota vehicles reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between June 1, 2011 and July 17, 2012.  To identify these reports, we examined the NHTSA data for all consumer complaints containing keywords related to UA that were submitted during that time period. We then reviewed each complaint record to determine if it described a UA incident. So here they are:

- 368 total incidents

- 36 involved vehicles described as having had at least one UA recall remedy performed prior to the incident.

-  95 reported injuries; none of these incidents resulted in a fatality.

So what do we make of this?  Despite the Very Important Scientists and the Secretary of Transportation LaHood’s proclamation that “The verdict is in” and “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period,” consumers are still taking the time to report their experience to the government – and many report incidents that don’t seem to be explained by floor mats, “sticky” pedals, or driver error.  You can read them here.

DOT Settles Lawsuit over Toyota UA Documents, New Congressional Inquiry Raises More Questions

The dam against electronically caused unintended acceleration in Toyotas that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota built, with outrage, secrecy, pedal interference recalls, and capped with the February 2011 NHTSA-NASA report springs more leaks. The question is: Can they keep it from collapsing entirely?

Safety Research & Strategies continues to examine information showing that unintended acceleration still plagues Toyota vehicles and that many incidents cannot be explained by floor mats, bad drivers and sticky pedals. Recently, the Department of Transportation settled a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit with SRS, agreeing to turn over investigatory documents, videos and photos related to the agency’s involvement with a 2011 recall of Toyota and Lexus models for alleged accelerator entrapment by interior trim. (The agency also agreed to pay our lawyer’s fees – this from the Most Transparent Administration Ever.)

The recall was precipitated by the Timothy Scott incident. Scott is a former 2007 Lexus RX owner who reported a frightening UA event as he headed home from the gym one morning. In short order, Toyota bought Scott’s vehicle, and pronounced it a case of trim interference. NHTSA never looked at Scott’s Lexus, but began to investigate this root cause in other vehicles. Within six weeks, Toyota recalled the vehicles and NHTSA was all done.

We were eager to see just what the agency found out about the possibility of trim interference as a root cause of UA and what it didn’t want to show us– enough, at least, to try to stash it behind Exemption 5 of the FOIA, which protects agency deliberations. Imagine our amazement when the videos – sans audio- appear to show that the Lexus RX trim does not interfere with the accelerator -- or, not without a lot of manipulation of exemplar vehicles. We are no closer to understanding why NHTSA dropped its investigation, or how trim interference can cause a UA like Tim Scott experienced, or, more importantly, why we had to sue the DOT to get this.

NHTSA Wobbles to Congress on Shaky Jeep Issue

The YouTube videos say it all: a Jeep Wrangler vibrating so intensely, a bystander can see the front wheels plainly shimmy. Inside the vehicle, another Wrangler owner demonstrates the steering wheel shaking with such force that the driver has a death grip to keep control of the vehicle, but don’t worry, NHTSA told two U.S. Reps., it’s not a safety hazard.

Hapless Wrangler owners have dubbed it the “Jeep Death Wobble,” and some journalists who have reported on the phenomenon have been more than happy to give this snappy name some play. The problem caught the attention of Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and California Rep Anna Eshoo, who last week released a letter they wrote to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, urging the company to do more to educate consumers and dealers alike about the problem and its remedies:

“Chrysler should undertake an outreach campaign to its customers, such as a Customer Satisfaction Campaign, to notify Jeep owners of the risk of the "wobble" condition, also described as a "vibration" or "shimmy," and the possible methods for repairing and preventing the problem. Such a notification could alert owners to the existence of Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) that advise dealers how to diagnose and make repairs to address this issue, emphasize the degree to which aftermarket modifications might affect or exacerbate the wobble problem, and advise customers how to stop the wobble if they experience it while driving.”

Apparently the five Technical Service Bulletins that Chrysler already issued relating to the problem were not enough. And apparently, Waxman and Eshoo turned to Chrysler, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already turned them away.

Round 437: No One Cares About Kids in Cars – Still

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board gathered all the government, industry and academic play-ahs in the board room of its headquarters to answer a question that’s been nagging safety advocates: Why doesn’t anyone give a damn about child safety in cars and planes?

The day-long meeting was meant to be a kick-off to the NTSB’s 2011 focus on child safety in airplanes and automobiles, with a special focus on increasing child restraint and seat belt use rates. Note to NTSB: you might want to allocate more time to this project – the lag in child safety regulation and industry practices has been the sad state of affairs for decades. Decades.

First up was the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency defended its practice of allowing children to fly without child safety restraints. Without a hint of irony, the FAA said that such a requirement would result in more people driving rather than flying, putting children at higher risk because the injury and fatality rates for children in motor vehicle crashes far surpasses that those in an airplane.

SRS Releases Update Report: Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Eight months have passed since Congress called out NHTSA and Toyota for failing to address Sudden Unintended Acceleration. The agency and the automaker claim they've learned nothing new about the problem, but there's nothing wrong with our learning curve. Behind the barrage of PR are all those niggling little facts, and once again, SRS has assembled them into the go-to Toyota SUA reference guide.

Toyota Washington Watch

We sat through the National Academies of Science first public meeting to tackle the Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration Study, a NHTSA-sponsored effort to look broadly at the issue, and we are happy to see that the agency has brought in some outside expertise.

This is truly an opportunity for the regulators to advance their knowledge base beyond the era of the mechanical automobile and into the age of automotive electronics, rapidly migrating from a vehicle’s entertainment center to its most basic functions of acceleration, braking and steering. It is critical to future policy setting and defect analysis.

EDR: Toyota’s Electronic Doubt Receptacle

Earlier this week, police in Auburn, New York concluded that a fatal crash involving a 2010 Camry that plowed through a red light was caused by the driver, who suffered a medical condition.

Law enforcement based this in part on the results of the Camry’s Event Data Recorder (EDR) – aka, “black box” – readout, which appeared to show that the driver Barbara Kraushaar never hit the brake in the five seconds before her Camry struck a Ford Taurus, and killed driver Colleen A. Trousdale.

A news report in Syracuse’s Post-Standard quoted Auburn Police Lt. Shawn Butler, thus:

Caught in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act

The reviews on the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 are coming in and we’re not sure, but there may be enough opposition to start a 1,000,000 People Strong Against the Waxman/Rockefeller Bill group on Facebook.

The legislation, proffered by Rep. Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee and Sen. John Rockefeller’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation would require NHTSA to establish four new standards to prevent unintended acceleration and mandate system redundancy and toughen the current Event Data Recorder standard. The legislation would also establish a new Center for Vehicle Electronics and Emerging Technologies and arm the agency with bigger civil penalties and the authority to order a recall in the case of imminent threat of injury and death. It proposes to give the public more information in the Early Warning Reports – changing the presumption of disclosure from major secrecy to maximum disclosure.

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