By CHERYL JENSEN
If two consumer groups prevail in their suit against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorists could feel more confident that safety defects possibly affecting their vehicles are not falling into a geographical black hole.
At issue in the suit, which was filed on March 10, is the safety administration’s practice of allowing automakers to conduct regional recalls. In a regional recall, an automaker is required to repair safety-related defects only in those states (or sometimes just the counties) where the problem is most likely to develop as a result of regional weather conditions.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington asks that the safety administration be ordered to stop the practice.
Under the current practice, a recall resulting from extremely high temperatures â€“ for example, hot weather causing a plastic part of the fuel system to fail â€“ may be allowed to exclude areas where those climate conditions do not occur.
Additionally, the use of regional recalls is in contrast to the established policy of ordering automakers to provide free repair of safety-related defects on all affected vehicles, regardless of whether they are parked in a driveway in the Snow Belt or Sun Belt.
The two consumer groups behind the suit, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, accuse the safety administration of allowing the automakers to save money while endangering the public. The groups say that regional recalls are not a provision in the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which treats all vehicles equally regardless of where they are sold or registered.
"The problem is the assumption that it’s adequate to do a fix only in certain states because of climatic reasons," said Allan J. Kam, who spent 25 years as a senior enforcement attorney for the safety administration and now works as a consultant in Bethesda, Md. "You can have hot weather in Idaho and you can have cold weather in the South."
The federal safety agency and automakers who favor regional recalls generally argue that there is no need for automakers to replace parts on cars that are not affected, and that it wastes consumersâ€™ time to bring in vehicles that are unlikely to experience the defect.
Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the safety administration, declined to comment on the suit last week. The agencyâ€™s stance has been that an automaker might fight some national recalls on the basis that the overall defect rate is too low, but if an automaker is allowed to target a specific region a recall becomes more practical. That helps consumers, the safety administration has argued.
The consumer groups say that is a flawed argument because consumers, and their vehicles, move around the country, whether as used cars or with their original owners. Defects on vehicles not included in the regional recall could emerge later, with deadly consequences.
The organizations filing the suit cited several examples of what they see as the capriciousness of these regional recalls. one involved a regional recall in 1999, issued for 1995 Ford Windstar minivans, whose fuel tanks could develop cracks and leak gasoline in a hot climate, possibly resulting in a fire.
The regional recall included 11 states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas), as well Clark County, Nev., and 10 counties in California, the suit said. Excluded from the recall were other parts of the country where extreme temperatures occur â€“ for example, the California county where Death Valley is located.
Several corrosion recalls have included Maryland and Washington, D.C., but excluded Virginia and, therefore, motorists from Virginia who commute daily to their offices in Maryland and Washington.