Not Very FAST Act Tackles Recall, Tire Issues, Closes Rental Loophole

After years of short-term fixes as durable as a pothole cold patch, Congress has cobbled together a $300 billion, five-year comprehensive transportation bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.

(We know that Congress loves it some acronyms. But, it’s been a decade since House and Senate passed the last long-term transportation bill, the mouthful known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act –a Legacy for Users [SAFETEA-LU] so perhaps they deserve some points for brevity. And irony. Or chutzpah.)

And on Friday, President Obama signed it into law. For the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the bill resolves one lingering safety issue, gives the agency the authority to exact larger fines, bumping the cap for civil penalties from $35 million to $105 million. It calls for some rulemakings, some improvements in the tire and vehicle recall systems, and requires the agency to collect information that – presumably – will help it improve processes and broaden its footprint.

But many advocates, like Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, say that the bill, for all of its mass, could have done a lot more for safety.

“This was a missed opportunity to promote new safety policies over the next five years – things based on technologies, like rear seat belt reminders and child minders,” he says. “It should be packed full of initiatives for safety, but a lot of things were left on the cutting room floor.”

The Other Missed Opportunity: Tires

The current tire-recall system was established 38 years ago, when recalls and government defect investigations of tires were rare. The FAST Act has attended but lightly to its two key components: the Tire Identification Number (TIN) and the tire registration system.

Once again, it has taken an act of Congress to get NHTSA to do something to make recalls more effective. In 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, (MAP-21, for short) required NHTSA 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. In response to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Safety Research & Strategies suggested that while the agency was designing a web interface, it might add a TIN look-up.

The agency declined:

“We considered the comments from SRS and ARA suggesting expanding the scope of this portion of our rulemaking to include certain aspects relevant to equipment recalls. At this time, we decline to expand the scope of the rule; the directive of MAP-21 is plainly limited to recalled vehicles.”

But that’s just how NHTSA rolls. The agency didn’t even require tiremakers to submit TIN ranges with their recall documents until 2009. Since most tire recalls relate to defects that occur during a discrete time range, tire recall information without TIN ranges was pretty much useless.

So, finally, the FAST Act requires NHTSA to create a web-accessible tire recall database that allows users to search by TIN, and any other information the agency deems useful.

Adding a TIN searchable system will certainly improve the current dataset, but again, this doesn’t work well in a service environment nor does it address the inherent problems with the use of the TIN.

The tire recall system has long been riddled with inefficiencies, and it has the recall return rates to show for it – an average of 30 percent, compared to the 72 percent and above rates vehicles, equipment or child restraints.

But a TIN look-up without the ability to automate tire identification still leaves the problem of discerning a tire’s status in a service shop environment, where it is not practical to expect techs to manually retrieve a 13 alpha-numeric code off each tire and accurately enter those numbers into a website. Technologies such as Radio Frequency Identification have the potential to transform the current cumbersome, inefficient system into one that fulfills its purpose – to remove defective and unsafe tires from the nation’s fleet, Instead of requiring NHTSA to take action and mandate a method to automate the TIN look-up (i.e., scanning), the bill only asks the agency to study the possibility of requiring “electronic identification on every tire that reflects all of the information currently required in the tire identification number.” The agency is to report its findings to the Senate and House Commerce committees, but there is no deadline for this study, so no urgency. The 21st century is still young. Plenty of time to catch up.

In the meantime, the FAST Act turns back the clock on tire registration. More than 30 years ago, tire dealers persuaded Congress to remove them from the tire recall system. Since 1983, dealers have only had to hand their customers a registration card to be filled out and returned to the manufacturer. The passage of the FAST passed that responsibility back to independent tire dealers, much to the chagrin of The Tire Industry Association. The required rulemaking will compel independent dealers to maintain customer tire purchase information and electronically transmit those records to tire manufacturers. The TIA lobbied hard against it, but apparently was no match for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which had promoted the provision.

The FAST Act advances the tire recall system only marginally, and avoids product identification automation technology – used in so many other sectors – that would make a significant impact. And the tire makers again get to foist the defect issue to dealers and customers with no changes to their system.

Other tire provisions:

Tire manufacturers are now required to extend the remedy period for tires from 60 to 180 days. The cap was originally established to address fears that drivers might drive on a recalled tire until it was worn out and then seek free replacement, instead of removing it right away. Most manufacturers already take back tires beyond the 60-day period. 

The FAST Act also initiates several tire safety rulemakings:

Within a year of enactment, NHTSA must publish a rulemaking proposal to improve the Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems, so that such systems cannot be over-ridden, re-set or re-calibrated so that the system cannot detect significant under-inflation. 

NHTSA is required to promulgate a rule to establish minimum performance standards for passenger tire fuel efficiency and wet traction.  

Closing the Rental Car Recall Loophole

Two years after the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act was introduced, the measure made it into the highway bill. It requires rental car companies and dealers with fleets of at least 35 vehicles to remedy recalled vehicles before renting, leasing or selling them, or, the case of a rental, at least mitigating the hazard if a remedy is not immediately available.

The bill is named for the Houck sisters, Raechel, 24, and Jacqueline, 20, who died on October 7, 2004, in a rented 2004 PT Cruiser. The Chrysler vehicle was under a recall for power steering hoses which could fail and cause an underhood fire. Enterprise received the recall notice in early September 2004, but rented the unfixed vehicle anyway — to other three customers before the Houcks. The young women died in a fiery crash while traveling northbound on Highway 101 in Monterey County outside of King City, caused by the defect.

The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act was first introduced in 2013, and supported by the car rental companies. The original bill set the fleet size for rental companies and auto dealers to at least five vehicles. The auto dealers fought hard against the measure, and demanded a carve-out for loaners. Many of them got that wish, with the provision that increased the applicable fleet size to 35 vehicles. Nonetheless, Rosemary Shahan of Consumers for Auto Reliability (CARS) says it’s the greatest expansion of NHTSA’s recall authority in years.

“It’s a big deal,” she says. “One reason that we wanted the rental car companies in the bill is that they are the biggest purchasers of new cars in North America. The fact they are required to fix them before they can go back on market as used cars – that’s huge.”

Vehicle Recalls Improvements

The FAST Act includes a variety of measures to further streamline vehicle recalls.

It extends the vehicle life-span for which a manufacturer is required to make recall repairs from 10 to 15 years. And it mandates NHTSA to write a regulation requiring automakers to retain safety records for their vehicle for at least 10 years.

Under another provision, NHTSA has two years to “implement current information technology, web design trends, and best practices that will help ensure that motor vehicle safety recall information available to the public on the Federal website is readily accessible and easy to use.” specifically, Congress is requiring NHTSA to improve the organization, availability, readability, and functionality of the website. The Comptroller General is charged with studying these improvements and reporting out NHTSA’s progress

NHTSA has to study the feasibility of creating a public Web portal that allows the searching multiple vehicle identification numbers at a time to retrieve motor vehicle safety recall information

By next September, NHTSA must prescribe a final rule requiring manufacturers to make electronic notification of recalls to consumer, in addition to first class mail – that could mean emails, social media and targeted online campaigns.

For the next four years, NHTSA is required to analyze recall completion rates by manufacturer, model year, component, and vehicle type to determine what actions it must take to improve them.

Although Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D.-Mass.), did not succeed in inserting legislation to require states to withhold registration renewals for vehicles with open recalls, the FAST Act does require NHTSA to implement a two-year pilot program to examine the feasibility and effectiveness of having state DMVS at least inform vehicle owners of open recalls on their vehicles. 

Event Data Recorders and Driver Privacy

The legislation clarifies that Event Data Recorder data is owned by the owner or lessee unless a legal authority, such as a court, or the owner/lessee authorizes a download. It also requires NHTSA to submit a report, within a year of enactment, the results of a study conducted to determine the amount of time event data recorder “should capture and record for retrieval vehicle-related data in conjunction with an event in order to provide sufficient information to investigate the cause of motor vehicle crashes.” Within two years after submitting this report, NHTSA must promulgate a rule establishing that amount of time.

Reports, Reports, Reports

The FAST Act provides NHTSA with plenty of other opportunities for self-reflection, improvement and report-writing.

Three months from now, NHTSA is require to submit the first of periodic progress reports on implementing the recommendations of the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General  last scathing audit. Released in June, “Inadequate Data and Analysis Undermine NHTSA’s Efforts to Identify and Investigate Vehicle Safety Concerns,” rapped the agency for its opacity, and for a host of process failures, such as the absence of EWR audit procedures to verify that manufacturers submit complete and accurate early warning reporting data and the failure to follow “standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data.” Next November, NHTSA has to produce a final report on its implementation plans.

A year from now, NHTSA is required to give the public detailed guidance for consumers submitting safety complaints, including a detailed explanation of what information a consumer should include in a complaint; and of the possible actions NHTSA can take to address a complaint and respond to the consumer.

Also on the Act’s one-year anniversary, the agency must submit to Senate and House commerce committees, a catalogue of the accomplishments of the Council for Vehicle Electronics, Vehicle Software, and Emerging Technologies, which was established under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).

SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009, and in the last six years, our entire transportation system suffered while a Congress that is in session for a little over 130 days a year, couldn’t find common ground beneath its collective feet on any issue. The Safety Record Blog supposes that we should be grateful that they only took six years to strike a deal. But seeing as it will be a long time before another opportunity arises to move the ball on safety legislation, the FAST Act isn’t too swift.