NHTSA Drops the Hammer on Chrysler Jeeps

The Continuing Case of Takata’s Exploding Airbags

Last week, four Japanese automakers – Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda – announced recalls of 3.4 million vehicles for “improperly pressurized” airbags made by Takata that could rupture, igniting fires or propelling metal fragments that could travel “upward toward the windshield or downward toward the front passenger's foot well.”

They forgot to mention that they could shoot straight out and hit you in the chest, as allegedly happened in 2009 to a Florida woman who owned a 2001 Honda Civic. And, they apparently forgot to mention that these airbags have been recalled over and over again since 2001.

In this latest campaign, Takata said that it only learned of the problem in 2011, after an alleged rupture of a passenger airbag inflator occurred in Puerto Rico. Certainly, it’s unlikely that 2011 was the first the supplier heard about this issue. There have been six recalls associated with Takata airbags that explode with too much force, spraying debris in their wake. This slow-moving rolling recall for manufacturing defects involving 13-year-old vehicles raises more questions than it answers. Why is Honda identifying a manufacturing process problem so long after these vehicles were produced?

The latest recall of 2000 to 2004 vehicles suggests an age degradation issue involving the propellant. Honda’s ever-changing explanations suggest that perhaps more than one manufacturing problem lies at the root of the inflator rupture problems.  A stroll through the recall documents also reveals Honda’s odd behavior – like recalling 830,000 vehicles to find 2,400 replacement modules. The depth of NHTSA’s involvement is also unknown. The agency began asking questions in 2009, without actually assigning the recall investigation an official Recall Query number. We suspect that the Recall Management Division has been keeping close company with Honda ever since.

Honda Inflator Ruptures Through the Years

2001: Recall 01V055

In February 2001, Isuzu reported in a Defect and Noncompliance Notice that it discovered three vehicles, a 2000 and 2001 Rodeo and an MY 2001 Honda Passport had passenger side front air bag inflator modules built with too much generant.

“In the event of a crash, the abnormal amount of generant could cause the airbag to burst. Occupants could be injured either as a result of debris or as a result of crash forces not counteracted by the air bag,” Isuzu said.

According to the defect report, the undisclosed supplier told the vehicle assembly plant that it had produced air bag units with incorrectly manufactured inflators in late January 2001. At the time, Isuzu said that it only knew of three defective vehicles outside its possession – identified by Isuzu 's undisclosed supplier using ”radiography images in the supplier's possession.”

So, it was a small, limited recall, since two of the vehicles were on the dealer’s lot, and only one – a Honda Passport – had been sold to a customer. 

Fixated on Floor Mats

Last month, NHTSA kicked a two-year-old investigation into unintended acceleration in Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan vehicles up to an Engineering Analysis. The suspected defect – floor mats that can entrap the accelerator pedal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Analysis:

“A heel blocker in the floor pan provides a platform that may lift an unsecured mat into contact with the pedal. Ford introduced new pedals as a running change early in model year (MY) 2010 vehicles. Analysis of complaints received by ODI and Ford show elevated rates of pedal entrapment incidents in MY 2008 through early 2010 production vehicles. Incidents typically occur following hard pedal applications to pass slower traffic or when merging into faster traffic. Drivers allege continued high engine power after releasing the accelerator pedal and difficulty braking, including reports that the incident was controlled by shifting to neutral or turning the engine off. Drivers and service technicians reference observing evidence of mat interference or note unsecured Ford or aftermarket all weather floor mats in post-incident inspections.”

This action was followed by a high-profile $17.4 million civil penalty that the agency levied against Toyota for failing to launch a timely recall for floor mat interference involving Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles. This was a NHTSA-influenced recall of mysterious origins since the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire complaints didn’t seem to support a floor mat interference defect trend (see A Defect Remedy Delayed) – although the Lexus RX has certainly been plagued with all manner of sudden acceleration complaints.

These two events sent us digging through the recall and investigation archives to get a better handle on the greater context. There seems to have been an awful lot of floor mat-related brouhahas in the last few years. It seemed odd that floor mats – which exist solely to provide a barrier between muddy shoes and the carpeted floor pan – should suddenly be so troublesome. In the old days, rubber floor mats were rarely secured with retention clips, as they are now. In one of its responses to the 2010 Ford Fusion Preliminary Evaluation, the automaker reminded NHTSA:

A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

Changes to Recall Regs: A Ray of Sunshine!

When is a safety recall not really a safety recall?  When the manufacturer submitting the Part 573 Defect and Non-Compliance Report (49 CFR Part 573) says it isn’t.

The Recall Management Division’s files are dotted with many such non-admission admissions. For example, in February, Goodyear recalled nearly 41,000 of its Silent Armor Tires in six sizes. The company conceded that these tires had high rates of warranty and property damage claims, and that the tire’s lack of robustness could result in a partial tread separation and a crash. Three months earlier, two Texas college students died in a rollover crash, after the left rear Silent Armor tire on the pick-up truck suffered a tread separation.

Goodyear, however, “found no safety issues” and deemed its recall a “customer satisfaction campaign,” to NHTSA.

If NHTSA’s proposed changes to the recall regulations are eventually adopted, the practice of manufacturers making signing statements will end. The agency is also proposing to require automakers to file defect and non-compliance reports via the Internet, including notices of foreign recalls. The agency is proposing asking manufacturers to submit the specific Vehicle Identification Number for each recalled vehicle, so that consumers can search a recall by their vehicle’s specific VIN. Unfortunately, there appears to be no such provision for the Tire Identification Number (TIN). Manufacturers will continue to submit TIN ranges only, and there will be no Web portal, which the public can use to determine if a specific tire has been recalled.

Toyota and the Case of the Electronic Floor Mat Entrapment

As the last work week in June slouched to a close, Toyota announced another floor mat recall – this time for 154,000 model year 2010 Lexus RX350 and RX450 H vehicles. Frankly, we were slack jawed. This is the automaker’s fifth floor mat recall since 2005 and the eleventh alleging that unintended acceleration was caused by something interfering with the accelerator pedal – all weather mats, plastic trim, condensation in the pedal’s friction lever. That’s double digits, people.

NHTSA quickly claimed credit for influencing the recall:

“NHTSA approached Toyota regarding this issue late last month after the agency observed an increase in consumer complaints and other reports regarding pedal entrapment in these vehicles. When Toyota confirmed last week that it had received a significant volume of complaints on the same issue, NHTSA asked the manufacturer to conduct a recall.”

We guess that at this point, NHTSA and Toyota are tight enough that the agency can dispense with the whole investigation thing and just pick up the phone. So, the public doesn’t know what data the agency collected, and how many complaints directly to Toyota constitutes “a significant volume.”

The agency said that it had “carefully” reviewed “the available data” and “does not currently believe the issue involves additional vehicles beyond those indicated as part of the recall.” “..NHTSA anticipates the remedy proposed by Toyota will address the problem.”

Sadly, we do not share the agency’s confidence.  We have carefully reviewed the 2010 RX350 speed control complaints and we noticed something pretty interesting. Drivers were reporting that during the unintended acceleration event, the “brake failure” telltale on the dash was lit up. Check out ODI 10445439, reported to NHTSA last October:

On Oct. 5, 2011 at 7:45 am, I was traveling on a one lane road each way in rural Connecticut (35 mph zone). I decided to pass a car that was traveling well below the speed limit when my Lexus RX350 lurched forward suddenly and then had a huge burst of accelerating speed. I applied my foot to the brakes and the car slowed very slightly, but started to buck a little and then once again felt like it kicked into a higher gear. My dashboard was flashing "brake failure." as I looked down and saw that my foot was firmly planted down on the brakes. Fortunately, there were few cars on the road and only once did I have to pass a car on a blind curve hoping no one was approaching from the other way, so as to avoid ramming a car in front of me. I had resolved in my mind that I was going to crash, and was trying to find a place to take the car off the road while trying to minimize injury to me. I stopped looking at my speed, but it was clearly in excess of 60 mph in a 35 mph zone. I was lucky that day, since there were few cars on the road and the stretch of road I was on was fairly straight. I drove this way for about 1.5 miles when it then occurred to me to shift the car into neutral. Once I did this, the car eventually reduced speed to about 5-10 mph. I threw the car into park and jumped out of the vehicle, which at this point was engulfed in smoke from the failed brakes. Lexus blamed the incident on a stuck accelerator pad, although they admitted when the car came to their shop the pad was not stuck. I know factually that the pad was not stuck, since I looked down at my feet during the episode and saw my foot on the brake, and the accelerator pad in its normal position. This was clearly an incident of sudden acceleration.

Or ODI 10445422, concerning a January 25 UA:

“I went out to grab a bite to eat for my daughter and I came to a stop light at a major intersection. I received the turn arrow so I accelerated thru the turn and then punched the gas to make it thru the next light that will turn red if you don't give it a little gas to get thru it. I make it thru the light and get in the right lane to slow down to make my turn and my brakes don't work and my car starts accelerating on its own. I have no control of the speed so I throw the car in neutral and keep slamming the brakes while the brake malfunction light appears. I’m not sure how my car slows down and I make a right turn into a parking lot and my engine is still sounding like it is accelerating and I am in neutral. My car rolled to a stop, I shut it down and called the Lexus line. The [sic] had a towing company out within an hour and the tow truck driver told me this is at least the 10th time he has hauled this type of car for the same thing.”

Better Consumer Protection in China?

China may be better known for afflicting consumers with shoddy products than protecting them from shoddy products, but if you own a newish Jeep Wrangler, apparently you’re better off if your vehicle is registered in Beijing rather than Boston.

In November 2011, the Chinese government strongly suggested that Chrysler recall its 2008 – 2010 Jeep Wrangler models because the skid plate and exhaust configuration allowed debris to collect in the undercarriage of the vehicle while off- roading, allowing the catalytic converter to ignite the dried grass. The recommendation came after consumers filed three fire complaints in the month of October alone. Chrysler tried to argue that only the 2010 MY Wrangler possessed uniquely defective underbody conditions, but the Chinese government lit a fire under the automaker to recall the 2008 and 2009 model years as well. Owners of those Jeep Wranglers got the skid plate replaced by the new skid bar, which didn’t allow debris to accumulate.

So what happens if you are Rob Pyrock of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the owner of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon? You don’t know anything about the Chinese Wrangler recall, but two months later, your Wrangler vehicle catches fire after a trip across a meadow, according to some fine reporting by WCNC’s Bill McGinty.

The Heavy Price of a Delayed Recall

Goodyear has notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it is recalling 40,915 Wrangler Silent Armor flagship tires, more than a year after the company observed a higher rate of warranty and property damage claims, and three months after two Texas college students died in a tire failure that precipitated a rollover crash.

The August 1, 2011 incident claimed the lives of Matthew Smith and his passenger Kerrybeth Hall, as Smith drove southbound on U.S. Highway 67 in Pecos County, Texas. The left rear Wrangler Silent Armor tire on the 2008 Ford F-150 pickup de-treaded, causing the pick-up to skid and rollover. Smith was fatally ejected from the F-150. Hall, who was properly restrained, also suffered fatal injuries in the crash.

“I think Goodyear was getting lot of warranty claims, but said, ‘Let’s see what happens,” says David T. Bright, an attorney with Sico, White, Hoeschler & Braugh of Corpus Christi, TX, who represents Gerry Lynn Wilkinson, Kerrybeth’s mother, in the civil case against Goodyear. “Then Goodyear waited another 12 months, and decided:  Hang on. Let’s wait a while longer. And three months later, these two people got killed.”

According to documentation Goodyear filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on February 22, the tiremaker had first noticed elevated property damage and warranty claims for the Wrangler Silent Armor tire, during its May 2010 review of Early Warning Data. Over the next 12 months, the company would continue to see high levels of warranty and property damage claims specifically for six sizes of the tires produced at its Fayetteville plant. But Goodyear still resisted a recall, passing off the uptick as isolated cases caused by “stone drilling damage and other external damage to the tires.”

Could Crib Tents Become a Regulated Product?

On December 27, 2008, the strangulation death of Noah Thompson by a Tots In Mind crib tent became the first to be investigated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission involving this unregulated product. Eighteen months later, in July, the commission and the manufacturer finally announced a recall featuring a repair remedy for the attachment clips.

The Thompson case underscores two continuing weaknesses in the regulatory framework meant to ensure the safety of juvenile products: long gaps between the time when a product is deemed hazardous and a recall, and the difficulty in dealing with baby products that fall outside of the CPSC regulations and are not manufactured to any voluntary or mandatory standard.

The CPSC says that the Tots In Mind recall may only be the first action it takes to protect toddlers from the design deficiencies of crib tents.

Time for Another Toyota Timeliness Query

When NHTSA went after Toyota with a $16.4 million stick for failing to recall sticking accelerator pedals within the five-day regulatory time limit, Attorney John Kristensen couldn’t help notice the parallels between the automaker’s mañana attitude toward U.S. recalls in the 2010 pedal campaign and in a 2005 recall of defective relay rods.

Today, Kristensen, an attorney with The O’Reilly||Collins Law Firm asked NHTSA administration to launch a Timeliness Query into Recall 05V389 to replace defective steering relay rods in Toyota pickups and 4Runners.

(And the thud you just heard was that other shoe dropping we mentioned back in October. See Troubles Mount in Toyotaville.)

According to a chronology of the sticking CTS accelerator pedals campaigns, Toyota launched a silent recall for the in UK and Ireland in June 2009, followed by a full EU Technical Service Bulletin in September. Toyota didn’t announce a U.S. recall of the same component until January 21, 2010. Toyota said that the UK and Ireland got the fix first, due to the unique combination of the British weather and the right-hand drive configuration:

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