NHTSA Gets Real on Tire Fatalities

Safety Fact: 733 is the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2016 in which a contributing factor was tire malfunction.

Safety Fiction: On average, 200 people die each year in tire-related crashes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration happens to be the purveyors of both tidbits, and the discrepancy is not just a matter of facts, it’s a matter of rulemaking and a matter of mixed messaging.

NHTSA Progress Slow as Safety Crises Keep Coming

On Friday, the Office of the Inspector General threw another report on the stack of official criticisms of the way the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation operates.

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Takata Recall Tests the New and Improved NHTSA

Tomorrow October 22, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is scheduled to hold a public hearing ostensibly to explore coordinating a national recall of defective Takata airbag inflators. 

Texas Attorney Asks NHTSA for Tire Investigation

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent’s message to the defense bar a few months ago at a legal conference was pretty clear – keep us in the loop, or risk the consequences. NHTSA’s message to the plaintiffs’ bar has been more like radio silence, so it will be interesting to see what the Recall Management Division does with a request to investigate the failure of a tire distributor to recall a defective Chinese tire already recalled by a different distributor, marketing the same tire under a different brand name. 

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Elective Warning Reports Redux

Mercedes seat warmers are burning holes in their customers – but, really, who cares?

Takata Airbag Defect Explodes into Crisis

This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a Consumer Advisory urging “owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags.” The announcement was accompanied by an agency web page with an incomplete list of vehicles under recall, as well as mistakenly naming 14 GM models equipped with Autoliv airbags that were once recalled in 2002. The recalls, investigations and complaints look-up functions on its website were inoperable. Toyota announced that it would disable defective airbags in some affected vehicles until replacement parts were available and Acting Administrator David Friedman told The New York Times concurred, under the logic that a vehicle with no airbag was better than one that might spray the occupants with shrapnel upon deployment. 

Toyota: A Series of Unfortunate Chapters

On a sunny June day, Kathy Ruginis, of Bristol, RI, had a low-speed Unintended Acceleration event in a 2010 Corolla, as she attempted to park. The car had already been remedied under the floor mat entrapment and sticky accelerator recalls, and presumably was as safe as a babe in its mother’s arms. Ruginis was making a slow, right hand turn to ease into the parking space; her foot was on the brake, when the vehicle surged forward and crashed into an unoccupied parked Jeep in front of it. Fortunately, only the Toyota and the Jeep were injured.

Kathy’s husband Bob, an electrical engineer with 35 years’ experience in embedded software and hardware design, wanted an explanation. And Toyota had one. After a June 24 physical inspection, a test drive and a download of the Corolla’s Event Data Recorder (which Toyota requested be performed), Toyota sent Bob and Kathy a letter, which basically said: we jiggled your pedal, we wiggled your floor mat, and we drove your vehicle for an exhaustive 16 miles. There’s nothing wrong with your car. So sorry. Goodbye.

Litigating the Goodyear Way

Earlier this month, the Goodyear legal team was prepared to argue before a judge in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas – in essence – that a 2007 Customer Satisfaction campaign to replace 400,000 P215/70R14 tries sold in the U.S. under 23 different names was confidential business information.

This assertion was never put to the test in court. But it’s another one of Goodyear’s litigation tactics designed to turn the discovery process into the two-dimensional version of a waterboarding. Delay, delay, delay. Deny, deny, deny. Goodyear is all about full-throated declarations about the non-existence of evidence and its legal team does not flinch in making them to a judge. In Walden v. Goodyear, Safety Research & Strategies obtained non-existent documents via garden-variety research methods and if you want to read them, click here.

The claim arose in Walden v. Goodyear, a case that involved the catastrophic failure of a Douglas Xtra Trac P215 70/R14. On July 26, 2010, Cynthia Eure was driving her van westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, when her right rear tire suffered a tread separation. The vehicle departed the highway and rolled over.  Five-year-old Tashi Walden was ejected and died of his injuries; two other passengers in the van were injured, but survived. Eure’s failed tire was among those that are part of the customer satisfaction campaign.

NHTSA’s Message to the Defense: Call Us Before We Call You

This week, while heads were rolling out the doors of the RenCen (GM headquarters) in downtown Detroit, the Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was laying down the law for defense lawyers at a Chicago legal conference.

Amid the presentations at the American Conference Institute’s 7th Annual Summit on Defending & Managing Automotive Product Liability Litigation devoted to defeating class-actions, the liability of autonomous cars and one of our personal faves –tire aging (with a shout-out to SRS’ Sean Kane!), was a warning from the government.

First, Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent lulled them with a feel-good “rah-rah-ree” paean to industry. And then, he made the hair on the back of their necks rise: A manufacturer’s obligation to report a defect within five days of its discovery is the law, and after a long hiatus from doing its job, NHTSA intended to take “an aggressive stance” in enforcing it.

The first offense line in the discovery of a defect was not the Office of Defects Investigation, Vincent said. It was the manufacturers themselves.

“We don’t have analysts, but your clients do. You all have ability to find these defects,” he said.

A manufacturer cannot delay a defect finding, while a safety problem meanders through an internal process involving multiple committees. It cannot hide its knowledge behind a wall of attorney work product and attorney-client privilege. It cannot wait until it’s gotten the supply chain ready to implement the recall.

And it better not wait until after it settles a plaintiff’s case for big bucks. The TREAD Act obligated NHTSA to “follow up on civil litigation that sends up red flags,” he said.  And they’d be looking for signs of foot-dragging in large civil litigation settlements. Not right away, certainly. Civil actions take years, he said. (This gives the safety problem plenty of time to fester.) How much of a settlement was enough to catch NHTSA’s attention? Vincent wouldn’t name a figure.

ABC Exposes Broken Tire Safety System

Yesterday, ABC’s Nightline and Good Morning America took two issues that Safety Research & Strategies has been chipping away at for a decade, and gave them big play: the broken tire recall system and tire age. Producer Cindy Galli and investigative reporter Brian Ross, working with reporters at local ABC affiliates, bought recalled and very old tires, told victims’ stories and skewered the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association.

The stories raised a number of key issues:

• The tire recall system doesn’t work: Recalled tires aren’t always caught by retailers and there is no quick, easy or efficient way for any consumer or tire technician to check the recall status of a tire.
• Aged tires are sold and put into service unknowingly because the date code is buried in the Tire Identification Number, and expressed in a non-standard format. Tire age recommendations by vehicle and tire makers are not well known to service professionals or consumers.
• The tiremakers’ trade group, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) has conceded that the tire recall system does need improvement, but continues to maintain that tire age has no bearing on safety, and has fought off regulations to keep old tires off the road.

ABC highlighted the National Transportation Safety Board’s first tire safety investigation into a February crash that killed two and injured seven members of the First Baptist Church in New Port Richey, Florida, when a two-year-old left rear recalled BF Goodrich tire suffered a tread separation. The tire had been recalled in July 2012. The NTSB is also investigating a second fatal incident involving an aged tire. With its investigative powers and advisory role to other regulatory agencies on safety policy, the NTSB’s recommendations have the potential to be a game-changer. Will the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration listen?

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