Some automakers think regional recalls sufficient; consumer advocates disagree
Plain Dealer Auto Editor
Consumer groups are demanding that the government prohibit regional automotive safety recalls, a practice they say puts motorists’ lives at risk while saving automakers money.
In a regional recall, the automaker limits the repairs to cars in states where the problem is most likely to occur, rather than carrying out the safety program nationwide.
Such selective recalls have affected slightly more than 9 million vehicles since 1993, the period covered by the government’s most current records. The problems ranged from gas tanks that could leak to corrosion that could result in the loss of steering.
Most of the 38 regional recalls occurred in the last five years. Twenty-four included Ohio.
Automakers say regional recalls allow them to help consumers who are most likely to have the problem without inconveniencing the rest.
But people move around and it is not unusual for a used vehicle to be sold in another part of the country where the safety problem could occur, said David Champion, the director of automotive testing at Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports.
"A life is as valuable in Maine as it is in Florida," agreed Allan J. Kam, who spent 25 years as a senior enforcement attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and now works as a consultant in Bethesda, Md.
Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., demanded that the NHTSA stop the practice in a recent letter to the agency’s administrator, Dr. Jeffrey Runge.
Joan Claybrook, head of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, went further. She said regional recalls are not an option under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the 1966 law that requires recalls for safety defects.
"This is just a cost-saving device for manufacturers at the expense of consumers," said Claybrook, who served as NHTSA chief from 1977 to 1981.
But a top NHTSA official said there is nothing wrong with the practice.
"We are not in the business . . . of making manufacturers replace things that don’t need replacing. If there is no need to replace a brake rotor . . . there is no need to do it," said Kenneth N. Weinstein, the NHTSA’s associate administrator for safety assurance.
Regional recalls may encourage automakers to help consumers because it allows them to focus on a regional problem, said Weinstein.
Weinstein further argued that an automaker might justify not doing a national recall by calculating the defect rate nationwide and contending it is too low to bother.
But Ditlow said that isn’t likely to happen because in 2000 Congress passed a law that allows fines of up to $15 million and 15 years in prison for auto company officials who conceal a defect.
Todd Nissen, a spokesman for Ford, which is the regional recall champion, defended the practice as "a more tailored way of getting to people." Ford has had 18 recalls, compared with four for DaimlerChrysler, six for General Motors and two for Toyota.
Other automakers say some vehicles might not get a needed repair and they therefore order regional recalls very cautiously.
"That is something we struggle with and another reason why we do very few regional recalls," said GM spokesman Jay Cooney.
Recently, DaimlerChrysler considered a regional recall of 1997-98 Dodge 2500 and 3500 Ram pickups with diesel engines on which a fitting could corrode from road salt, said spokeswoman Ann Smith.
But considering the long life of diesel engines and the tendency of diesel owners to travel long distances, possibly through salt-belt states, the automaker decided a national recall of all 111,000 vehicles was more appropriate, she said.
Changing the rules?
Consultant and former NHTSA official Kam speculated that regional recalls have become more common in recent years because the NHTSA has not been firm enough with the automakers. From 1993 through 1996, there were seven regional recalls. From 1997 through this year there have been 31.
The NHTSA’s Weinstein, in his current job since 1997, agreed that regional recalls have become more frequent. He also said there is no consistency in how they are carried out.
For example, when faced with problems caused by corrosion from road salt, automakers often chose different states.
Weinstein sent automakers a letter in September 1998 advising them how to carry out regional recalls, including the states that would be covered for corrosion. That letter could be taken as permission for the practice from the NHTSA, he said.
The Weinstein letter instructs automakers to handle regional recalls in two basic ways. one involves "single-exposure events," such as high winds and snow blocking a vehicle’s cooling fan, causing it to overheat and perhaps catch fire.
In that case, Weinstein said, an automaker may recall only the vehicles within a region likely to have such a problem. But the automaker must warn owners nationwide of the conditions that could cause the problem.
Plus, the owners who live outside the recall area can have the recall done simply by asking for it, Weinstein said last week.
Longer-term problems, such as corrosion that would take several years of repeated exposure, are handled differently. only consumers who live within the region automatically get the free repair, Weinstein said.
The NHTSA also requires the automakers to carry out "at least one" follow-up notification two or three years later to owners who have moved into a recall region, Weinstein said.
Consumers living outside the recall region will get a free repair if the problem occurs, Weinstein said.
However, an NHTSA official acknowledged those consumers may never become aware they could get a free repair because they don’t get any notification.
When hot is hot
The NHTSA’s own Web site includes complaints from consumers that suggest that the regional recall system is not working.
In 1999 Ford issued a regional recall of 70,116 of the 321,000 1995 Windstar minivans. The problem was that in a hot climate the fuel tank could develop cracks. It could leak gas, raising the possibility of a fire.
Ford recalled the Windstars in 12 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Clark County, Nev. (which includes Las Vegas), Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
With the NHTSA’s permission, Ford also covered only 10 counties in southern California, including somewhat temperate areas such as Santa Barbara, but not Death Valley, one of the hottest parts of the United States.
Meanwhile, the NHTSA’s record of the original 1999 defect investigation show the agency had 15 cases of 1995 Windstar fuel leaks in non-recall states. Those included Pennsylvania, Utah, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland.
"This is, at best, discretion run amok," said Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.
Ford spokesman Nissen said Ford makes its decisions based on reported failure rates as well as temperature and climate information gathered from the government. Plus, Nissen said, Ford’s policy on regional recalls would be to help any owners who are worried about a problem.
That policy may come as a surprise to the dozens of 1995 Windstar owners who have complained to the NHTSA about fuel leaks in states not included in the regional recall.
"Ford has refused to repair it as part of the recall because I do not live in one of the listed states," wrote one consumer.
Consumers who want to check regional recall information can do so with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That information is found on the agency’s Web site at www.nhtsa.dot.gov under the "recall" section. Or, consumers can call 1-800-424-9393.