Auto recall speed praised

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Recalls > Recall News

10/22/2010

NHTSA boss says carmakers making ‘right decisions’

DAVID SHEPARDSON
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington— The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration praised automakers Thursday for moving faster to recall flawed vehicles, singling out Toyota Motor Corp. for its improvements.

In a Detroit News interview this week, NHTSA chief David Strickland said the agency has "increased the pace" of investigations.

"We are now seeing the manufacturers stepping up, looking harder at their own decisions," Strickland said, adding that automakers are making "the right decisions in terms of safety and consumers."

But Strickland said he doesn't think his agency has changed dramatically in dealing with manufacturers.

"I don't think there's anything that's changed in the core DNA of what we do here at NHTSA."

NHTSA is, however, opening investigations faster, and after fewer complaints, than in the past. It has taken a harder line with automakers in some cases.

Last week, Strickland met with staff and the companies that make up the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade association representing Detroit's Three automakers, Toyota and eight others, to discuss safety. He told them "our working relationship on safety is bearing fruit."

Charles Territo, a spokesman for the group, said NHTSA and automakers share the same goal on safety.

"It's important that we maintain an open dialogue with the agency so that we can better understandtheir priorities and they can better understand the challenges we face," Territo said.

Automakers have recalled about 15 million vehicles in about 500 separate campaigns this year. That's on pace to hit highest number of vehicles called back since 2005.

Strickland has faced no bigger issue than Toyota's sudden acceleration woes, which prompted a brief halt to most of its vehicle sales early this year, and congressional hearings.

Toyota paid a $16.4 million fine after NHTSA said it delayed a recall of 2.3 million vehicles by at least four months. The safety agency is reviewing 800,000 pages of records and considering whether to impose fines in two separate investigations.

"I want to make sure everything is done right," Strickland said.

Toyota has had at least 14 separate recall campaigns in 2010, totaling about 6.4 million vehicles, although some vehicles were subject to more than one recall.

Strickland, who has been critical of Toyota's conduct, praised the turnaround on safety matters. He cited a "change in how (Toyota) approaches defects" and said it is "working very hard to be a better company going forward."

"Toyota really is taking safety much more seriously than they did before I took office," said Strickland, who has been on the job since January.

Toyota vice president of product communications, Jim Colon, told reporters in Washington Wednesday that the "whole recall landscape has kind of changed since our own incident," and all automakers are now expected to be "forthcoming."

On Thursday, Toyota agreed to recall 740,000 vehicles in the U.S. for rubber seals that may leak, even though it said they pose no safety risk and it is not required to do so.

Also Thursday, NHTSA urged owners of Ford Motor Co. vehicles recalled over fire risks to get them repaired. NHTSA said just 40 percent of the 14 million or so vehicles that have been recalled have been fixed — lower than the industry average of 70 percent repaired after 18 months.