NHTSA Chokes on Recall Rule

The NHTSA has published a Final Rule on Early Warning Reporting and recall requirements, and we are sorry to say that it misses the mark on a number of fronts. But – it certainly is a very traditional approach to auto safety. NHTSA’s most significant safety steps forward are almost exclusively at the behest of Congress, and the gaps in this bill reflect that Daddy-Didn’t-Make-Us-Do-It mind-set.

These amendments, weaker than they should have been, are the result of 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, (MAP-21, for short) MAP-21 is the first major highway funding authorization bill since the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible Transportation Equity Act – a Legacy for Users (SAFTEA-LU). The comprehensive bill, among other things, could have fixed some significant problems with recall process and made the system more useful for its intended audience – consumers. Instead, NHTSA nibbled at the edges, and, if history is any judge, it will be another decade at least, before the agency makes more substantive changes – or Congress intervenes.  

The New Requirements

NHTSA was considering satisfying the MAP-21 dictate to make recalls Internet-based and searchable by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), by requiring manufacturers to submit the VIN ranges of recalled vehicles directly to the agency to augment its current consumer search interface, which allows users to look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number. Frequently, a recall may not cover all vehicles in a particular model or model year, but ones manufactured in specific plants or in specific date ranges. Instead, the agency decided to require each manufacturer of large volume light vehicle and motorcycle manufacturers to offer their own recall look-up websites, which includes a VIN field.

Chrysler and the Jeep - Outlier?

So Chrysler has thrown down the gauntlet, and its claque has dutifully delivered its standing O. Atta boy, Chrysler, tell those regulators to stick it!

As usual, those opining about Chrysler’s public resistance to recalling the 1993 - 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002 -2007 Libertys for defective fuel tanks haven’t a bloody clue. And so, as usual, The Safety Record Blog will put Chrysler’s shot across the bow into its proper context.

To recap: In November 2009, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open an investigation into fuel-fed fires plaguing the early model Jeep Grand Cherokees, alleging that the plastic fuel tank's placement behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, and the lack of adequate shielding made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, this design resulted in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities, CAS said. The agency granted the CAS petition in August 2010, and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis. Two weeks ago, NHTSA announced that it had requested that Chrysler recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002 -2007 Liberty and was ready to go to an Initial Decision hearing if Chrysler refused.

So far, Chrysler has refused. Its preliminary defense was laid out in a “White Paper” (see NHTSA Drops Hammer on Chrysler Jeeps) Yes, it was written on virtual white paper. But we expected something a little more detailed than a three-page press release and a chart with writing so tiny, one needs to blow it up 500 percent to read it. Its basic argument is, and has always been, this: The Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Jeep Liberty met the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301 fuel tank integrity at the time, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty, statistically are not outliers for rear-impact fuel-fed fires. (Chrysler has until next Tuesday to file its official response.) 

Sounds reasonable, no? Let’s unpack it.

NHTSA Issues Eighth Consumer Advisory about Dangers of 15-Passenger Vans

On March 1, the Epicenter of Worship Church held a prayer vigil for Omberi Erasto, the 18-year-old East Lansing High School student who died in a 15-passenger van rollover crash last month. Erasto was one of 17 occupants in a 2002 Chevrolet Express homeward bound on I-96 after a choir performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The left rear tire of the Express failed, leading to a loss-of-control crash that left several passengers severely injured, including Erasto’s younger sister, who lost her leg.

Two weeks later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, issued yet another warning about the proper use of a 15 passenger van, in advance of the “spring driving season.” The agency is, once again, urging “colleges, church groups, and other users of 15-passenger vans to take specific steps to keep drivers and passengers safe.”

This is the agency’s eighth consumer advisory about the dangers of 15-passenger vans since 2001. The number one tip? Never overload a 15-passenger van because they “are particularly sensitive to loading.”

Funny, though, the agency neglects to define “overload” for the consumers they presumably want to warn. Fifteen-passenger vans have the dubious distinction of being a vehicle that is inherently unsafe if used for its intended purpose. Back in 2001, the agency issued specific information related to overloading, and emphasized the deadly consequences of failing to heed this warning:

NHTSA Keeps Toyota’s Secrets, Part II

Among safety advocates’ most vociferous criticisms of NHTSA and NASA’s investigation into Toyota Unintended Acceleration were the copious black smears over key bits of data and text in their twin reports released last February. These redactions have kept independent scientists from knowing exactly what the investigators did, irrespective of assessing the quality of the research.  (See: How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data)

Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, ever the assiduous students of NHTSA’s statistical and informational folkways, went for broke. Shortly after the reports were released, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for non-redacted versions of the reports and supporting material that was missing from the record. In response, NHTSA publicly released some of the information in the form of less redacted versions of Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems and Technical Support to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Reported Toyota Motor Corporation Unintended Acceleration Investigation, but continued to withhold other information.

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