While You Were Out …

We’re all familiar with the Friday afternoon news dump – release something controversial at close of business on the last day of the week. Don’t leave reporters much time for digging or tracking down interview subjects, and hope everyone is too busy livin’ for the weekend to pay attention. The holiday news dump is a variation on this theme and last week, as Americans were preparing to grill hotdogs and wave sparklers, some big news broke out: Graco added 1.9 million infant carriers to an earlier recall of 4.2 million safety seats for harness buckles that were nearly impossible to unlatch, making it the largest child seat recall in U.S. history. NHTSA released some after-the-fact testing and another Special Order related to a dubious customer satisfaction campaign related to rear-impact Jeep fires. GM found yet more vehicles with a bum ignition switch that needed to be recalled and laid out its compensation protocol for past victims of its malfeasance. Head below for the details:

Graco Harness Buckle Recall

Five months after Jennifer Timian of the NHTSA’s Recall Management Division sent Graco a blistering recall acknowledgement letter reaming out the manufacturer for minimizing the safety hazard of harness buckles that do not unlatch, Graco has surrendered. It added 1.9 million infant carriers to an earlier recall of about 4 million convertible and booster seats with a harness buckle that was so difficult to unlatch, that consumers reported the need to cut their children out of the seat.

Graco’s Feb. 7 Part 573 Notice of Defect and Noncompliance did a 180 in tone and substance from its original recall notice in February, in which the child safety seat-maker made it clear that it would rather eat ground glass than concede that harness buckles that become stuck by design or contamination could present a safety hazard in an emergency:

While Graco and NHTSA have not reached an accord over the nature or severity of this  issue, Graco in an abundance of caution has agreed to submit this 573 report and engage in a recall for the Subject Child Restraints.

It reluctantly recalled about 4 million convertible and booster seats, including Cozy Cline, Comfort Sport, Classic Ride 50, My Ride 65, My Ride w/Safety Surround, My Ride 70, Size 4 Me 70, Smartseat, Nautilus, Nautilus Elite, and Argos 70 models. But, Graco declined to recall an additional 1.8 million rear facing infant seats. 


This time, Graco’s phrasing was more careful. While the word “defect” was never whispered, Graco’s memory of the first recall was all soft-focus:

Based on its discussion with NHTSA, Graco determined that a safety recall was warranted with regard to forward-facing toddler and harnessed booster car seats due to the probability that, and in addition to the ergonomic issues noted above, the physical orientation and use patterns of those seats with older children increased the potential for foreign material to interfere with the buckle mechanism over time. This in turn could make extraction of the child occupant more difficult in an emergency situation, thereby increasing the risk of injury.

This is what is alleged to have happened to Leiana Marie Ramirez, who died in a vehicle fire three days before her second birthday, strapped in a Graco Nautilus child safety seat. Her mother  Samika Ramirez was southbound on Arroyo Seco Parkway in South Pasadena, when Samika pulled her Nissan Altima to the side of the divided highway, suspecting that she had a flat tire. Another driver, who hadn’t noticed the stopped Altima, struck it in the rear, touching off a fire. According to the police reports, Samika tried to unbuckle her daughter, but could not release the harness. The flames engulfing her car were too intense, and onlookers pulled Samika Ramirez out of the car. The Ramirez family filed a civil lawsuit against Graco in October 2012, as NHTSA was opening an investigation into the problem. At the time of the recall, Graco had not reported this lawsuit to NHTSA, as it is required to do, under the Early Warning Reporting regulations.

Graco really had no choice but to widen the recall. NHTSA was threatening to go to an Initial Determination if Graco didn’t recall the infant carriers as well. And when the agency is ready to go to the mat, a manufacturer can count on lots of negative news stories about its products and its corporate behavior. That’s perhaps, more costly to the bottom line than a recall.

Chrysler Jeep Wrangler Fires

In other holiday news, the agency has issued a Special Order to Chrysler demanding to know when in the heck it was going to initiate the trailer hitch remedy it grudgingly agreed to implement more than a year ago after former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former NHTSA administrator David Strickland cut a deal with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to avoid a legal struggle. One year after Chrysler filed its Part 573, not one Jeep has been remedied, and at the rate Chrysler is going, it will take it nearly five years to implement it. The agency has taken umbrage:

For many owners, a recall remedy deferred by parts availability easily becomes a defect remedy denied. Moreover, additional delays in implementing this recall will inure to Chrysler’s benefit at the expense of vehicle owner safety. Although NHTSA acknowledges that recall campaigns may have low completion rates for any number of reasons, the agency has no intention of allowing Chrysler, or any other manufacturer, to delay recall completion to the detriment of safety.

Our readers may recall that NHTSA and Chrysler were on a collision course last spring over the unfortunate tendency of older Jeeps with behind-the-axle, rear-mounted fuel tanks to burst into flames when struck from the rear – especially at higher speeds. The Center for Auto Safety had been petitioning NHTSA for a Jeep recall since November 2009, when it formally requested that the agency open an investigation into fuel-fed fires in Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 1992-2008 model years. The advocacy group alleged that the plastic fuel tank’s placement and the lack of adequate shielding – similar in design to the infamous Ford Pinto – made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers.

In August 2010, the agency granted the CAS petition and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis Chrysler was pretty adamant that it didn’t see a problem here, and NHTSA was equally insistent that something be done. NHTSA formally requested that Chrysler conduct a recall, and with the deadline for a formal reply looming, LaHood, Marchionne, and Strickland met in Chicago and came to a compromise.

Chrysler agreed to outfit 1.5 million, 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs with trailer hitches, installed on vehicles not already so equipped “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.” Chrysler agreed to inspect vehicles with aftermarket and Chrysler-designed tow hitches “to assess whether the hitch and surrounding areas show evidence of sharp edges or other puncture risks. For those vehicles with after-market hitches, Chrysler will replace it with a Chrysler tow hitch “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.” In closing the Engineering Analysis, the agency said that it “had no reservations” about the trailer hitch “fix.”  Chrysler described it in its Defect and Non-Compliance Notice as “an incremental improvement” to safety in low-speed rear impact crashes.

These Special Orders, (coming so regularly now, we don’t know if they are that special any more.) are signs that NHTSA is trying mightily to acquire a spine. But this one, in particular, shows why the agency has a long way still to go.

After the Secretary of Transportation cuts the deal, ODI questions the effectiveness of the remedy in a meeting with Chrysler.

The automaker tries to allay these concerns by providing “drawings of the hitches and a limited set of test data.” When ODI questions the sufficiency of those offerings, Chrysler says it won’t do anything else.

NHTSA is then forced to conduct its own tests. And if a report about those crash tests can be believed — eight rear impact crash reconstruction tests conducted from August 2013 to January – at speeds of up to 40 mph, all is well.

When NHTSA shares it glad tidings about the tests with Chrysler, NHTSA finds out that Chrysler had waited until December 2013, to select a hitch supplier and actually placed an order in late January 2014. The first run of hitches wasn’t actually produced until May 14, and Chrysler wouldn’t have all its parts stockpiled until next month.

Basically, Chrysler’s actions might be construed as a chronic middle finger to ODI.  And the Special Order? Pretty wimpy compared to some of the zingers coming out of the Chief Counsel’s office these days.

CAS, which has tirelessly championed this issue, rightly points out that its consumers who are getting the shaft. The tests, while nice, fall short of those the agency did the Ford Pinto of the 1970s, and short of today’s FMVSS 301 fuel tank integrity test, which requires a 50-mph 30 percent offset from a 3015 pound moving barrier with low front end — more severe than the ones NHTSA for the Chrysler tow-hitch “fix.”

In the meantime, CAS reports, four people have died and two have been seriously injured in rear-impact Jeep collisions since Chrysler announced its remedy last June.

Ignition Switch Nightmare Continues

GM celebrated the holiday week, as they do every week since Marietta, Georgia attorney Lance Cooper broke the news that General Motors knew it had a defective ignition switch in the 2005-2007 Cobalt and other models for at least a decade, by announcing an expanded recall. Chrysler also announced that it was adding 696,000 2007-2009 Chrysler Town & Country minivans and Dodge Journey SUVs to its 2011 ignition-switch recall of 196,000 Journeys, Caravans and Town & Country vehicles due to ignition keys that could slip from the “run” to “accessory” position, shutting down the engine, and the power steering and airbags with it.

On Monday of the holiday week, the GM recall ballooned to 8.4 million vehicles globally. This compelled Time journalists, bored with the sheer repetition of ignition recall, after ignition recall, after Congressional hearing, after document dump, after revelation that yet another GM insider warned them about this defect years ago, are forced to come up with ridiculous fun facts about the fiasco, such as: “The recalled vehicles could wrap around the Earth more than four times and The longest time between recalls hasn’t even been longer than the World Cup. Funny stuff! (Remember when Time was relevant?)

GM also announced its compensation plan for owners of ten Chevrolet, Daewoo, Open/Vauxhall, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles with a death or injury claim for a crash that occurred before December 2014. One key case killer: airbag or seat belt pre-tensioner deployment. Any evidence of either in a crash and the claim is ineligible. What technical support does GM have for drawing its bright line in that particular place? Kenneth R. Feinberg, Administrator of the GM Ignition Compensation Claims Resolution Facility, couldn’t answer that question at his holiday week presser.


EWR: Elective Warning Reports – When Manufacturers Don’t Report Claims

Last week was a case of déjà vu all over again, to quote Mr. Yogi Berra, as NHTSA, and one of its “regulatory partners,” General Motors, faced their Congressional interlocutors, for the second performance of Safety Accountability Theater since 2000, when Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. Fourteen years ago, it was the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco that set all those hands a-wringing. Five years ago, it was Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Now, its GM ignition switches.

These come-to-Jesus gatherings were supposed to be obviated by the creation of the Early Warning Reporting (EWR) system. A major component of the TREAD Act, EWR requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage, warranty and other data to the government on a quarterly basis. It’s an honor system that depends on truthful reporters.

More than a year ago, SRS discovered three death and injury claims that had not been reported through EWR, and sought out NHTSA to confirm this apparent lapse and determine NHTSA’s policy toward manufacturers that did not submit reportable injury claims. As is usually the case when we try to help our favorite federal agency, SRS got crickets. And, as is usually the case in that circumstance, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what they did about the information we gave them, and the agency’s policy for ensuring that reportable claims were getting into the system.

As is usually the case, NHTSA said that it had practically no information to share. As is usually the case, SRS called B.S. filed an appeal, and when that failed, took it to the U.S. District Court. And, as is usually the case, NHTSA found more responsive materials.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge signed a Settlement Agreement between SRS and the DOT in which the government paid our legal fees. As is usually the case. Continue reading

Graco’s Perception Problem

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Leiana Marie Ramirez was three days shy of her second birthday, when she was burned alive, strapped in a Graco Nautilus child safety seat.

 On August 26, 2011, her mother, Samika Ramirez had been out running errands related to Leiana’ party – delivering cupcakes to her pre-school, shopping for Lieana’s birthday present. The pair was on the way home, southbound on Arroyo Seco Parkway in South Pasadena, when Samika felt her Nissan Altima swerve, and thinking she had a flat, regained control of her vehicle, stopped in the left-most lane and put on her flashers. The divided highway had no breakdown lane, just a narrow shoulder.

 Ramirez was about to call AAA, when another driver, who hadn’t noticed the stopped Altima, plowed into its rear end. The vehicle almost immediately caught fire. According to the police reports, Samika tried frantically to unbuckle her daughter, but could not release the harness. The flames engulfing her car were too intense, and onlookers pulled Samika Ramirez out of the car, while Leianna stayed behind. She witnessed her daughter’s death.

 More than a year later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would open an investigation – still pending – that would eventually result in a recall of the Graco Nautilus and 17 other models for buckles that were so difficult to unlatch that some consumers complained to NHTSA that they had to cut the belt webbing to get their children out of the seat. And, from the beginning, Graco would concede that it was “keenly aware of the issue.” Indeed, it had collected more than 6,100 complaints about it.

 But Graco insisted that the inability to extract a child from the car seat was merely “a consumer frustration and a consumer experience that Graco has been working to improve.” To this date, Graco has not acknowledged that this defect led to a horrific death – not in its responses to the agency’s investigative information requests; not in its Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report and not in its Early Warning Reports. The company paid a big fine to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2005 for a long history of failing to report injuries and deaths. Even now, with the initial recall expanded and under a Special Order to answer all questions truthfully, Graco comforts its customers on its website:

 Graco can assure you there have been no reported injuries as a result of the harness buckles used on Graco car seats. We want to stress that our car seats are safe and effective in restraining children.  And, the safest way to transport a child is always in a car seat.

 NHTSA declined to comment on Graco’s stance, via a statement to The Safety Record:

 “Although Graco has submitted a defect notice in response to NHTSA’s recall request, our investigation remains open.  As such, the agency cannot discuss or comment at this time.”

 Attorney Christine Spagnoli, who represents the Ramirez family, says that Graco’s failure to acknowledge Leiana’s death will negatively affect the efficacy of the recall”

 “To me the issue is this: by putting on their website that there are no reported claims and by telling that to NHTSA, They are trying to dissuade people from getting new buckles,” says Spagnoli of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, LLP. “This is a safety issue, and by saying something false to the public, they’re trying to save money, at the expense of kids getting hurt.”

 The Investigation

 The Preliminary Evaluation into Graco buckles opened in October 2012 with 25 complaints reported to NHTSA via their Vehicle Owners Questionnaire database, containing hypotheticals that echoed the Ramirez incident, like this one, filed with the agency in September 2012: Continue reading