Consumer Groups Sue Over Car Recall Limits

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.


March 11, 2004

Two consumer groups sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday over the practice of allowing automakers to limit car recalls to specific states.

Though almost all vehicle recalls are conducted nationwide, the traffic safety agency restricts some to states with particular characteristics. Typically, those are either cold states that use rock salt on roads – the salt can lead to corrosion in vehicles – or states with high temperatures, which can lead to different types of problems.

The advocacy groups Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety contend that restricting recalls to certain states can harm drivers who move from one state to another and that some counties or states are often excluded even though they seem to have similar conditions as those that are included in the recalls.

For instance, New Mexico is frequently excluded from recalls conducted in a dozen hot states, including every other southernmost state in the continental United States, as well as South Carolina, Nevada and Hawaii. And Washington State is often excluded from similar recalls in the northernmost states, as is Idaho, though to a lesser extent.

\"There is no rational basis for this, except to limit the scope of the recall and the cost to the manufacturer,\" Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety, said. \"Our position is that in this modern age, recalls should follow the car wherever they go.\"

Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency, said it had no comment on pending litigation.

Given the millions of vehicles that are recalled every year – some more than once – the traffic safety agency does try to have a cooperative approach with automakers because they can go to court to block a recall.

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said regional recalls resulted from special conditions. \"It may be corrosion resulting from the use of rock salt to melt snow in cold regions, or some sort of concern that has arisen from higher operating temperatures in hot regions, so it may not apply nationwide.\"

\"It’s a balance,\" she added, \"being protective and not disrupting customers needlessly.\"

The suit was filed Wednesday in Federal District Court in Washington. It contends that the agency’s policy violates a federal law that requires automakers to notify owners of defective cars and trucks and provide free repairs.

The suit cited a recall involving Ford Escorts. In hot states, the cars’ fuel tanks could crack, leading to fires, but the recall excluded New Mexico. And though 10 counties in California were included, the county that includes Death Valley, one of the hottest places on the planet, was not.

Referring to New Mexico, Mr. Ditlow said: \"N.H.T.S.A.’s rationale is that there are variations in temperatures within the state, and that it’s a cool state and not a hot state. But clearly some areas in New Mexico are quite hot.\"

A similar recall involving Ford Windstar minivans also excluded New Mexico, parts of California as well as North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The minivans could develop leaks in their fuel tanks, leading to fires. The suit says the traffic safety agency’s complaint database has dozens of reports from consumers with Windstars that were excluded from the recall.

\"If a vehicle has a defect that makes it unsafe, the defect needs to be fixed on all similar vehicles,\" said Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen and a former administrator of the traffic safety agency.