Consumers Sue Over Limited Car Recalls

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.


By Christopher Jensen, Plain Dealer Auto Editor

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Two consumer groups sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Wednesday, claiming the public is endangered while automakers save money because the federal agency allows \"regional\" recalls of defective vehicles. In a regional recall an automaker is allowed to limit repairs to the region in which a problem is most likely to occur instead of repairing all vehicles nationwide.

Some automakers argue regional recalls are a good way to handle problems that occur due to special conditions such as corrosion or extreme temperatures. It keeps consumers from being inconvenienced, they contend.

But consumer advocates argue that the policy is dangerous because society is so mobile. \"Cars should be recalled and fixed wherever they are,\" said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.

The suit filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., was brought by Ditlow’s group and Public Citizen, both of which were founded by Ralph Nader. Public Citizen is headed by Joan Claybrook, who was in charge of NHTSA from 1977 to 1981.

The suit asks that the court order the agency to stop allowing regional recalls. NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd had no comment.

Since 1993 the federal agency has increasingly allowed automakers to use regional recalls, according to a June 2002 Plain Dealer examination of the matter. At that time the Ford Motor Co. was the regional-recall champion, with 18 recalls, compared with four for DaimlerChrysler, six for General Motors Corp. and two for Toyota.

In that story, NHTSA associate administrator Kenneth N. Weinstein defended the policy. \"We are not in the business . . . of making manufacturers replace things that don’t need replacing,\" he said.

In the 2002 story, Weinstein said there are safeguards to make sure consumers are protected and get the necessary repairs, but Ditlow and Claybrook argued then that they were flawed.

The 2002 story also noted that the agency’s own Web site included complaints from consumers who couldn’t get gas leaks repaired on their 1995 Ford Windstars because they did not live in the region where Ford was conducting a recall.

In December 2003, The New York Times also examined the issue of regional recalls.