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Is the Vehicle Recall System Broken?

Tina Robinson2 years ago

Since General Motors began recalling cars with defective ignition switches in February, recalls have been announced at a seemingly non-stop pace across the auto industry. With long wait times to get repairs and millions of unrepaired vehicles on the road, some question if the recall system is broken.

A new article in the Detroit Free Press takes an in-depth look at how effective the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency responsible for overseeing vehicle recalls, really is.

Recalled Vehicles Go Unrepaired

According to Carfax estimates, more than 3.5 million cars are for sale online with open recall notices and about 36 million cars on the road are unrepaired. On average, 75% of all recalls get repaired, but that number drops significantly when the recall covers older cars. Such is the case with the GM recall, which covers older model Chevy Cobalts, Saturn Ions, and Pontiac G5. Notifying the owners of older cars, which may have had multiple owners, can be difficult, and many owners won’t bother to get repairs due to the age of the vehicle.

GM has been at the forefront of the recall news as federal investigations look into why the company failed to recall these dangerous vehicles for over a decade. The defect has been linked to 13 deaths and 47 crashes by GM’s own estimate, and records indicate many of those lives might have been saved if a recall had been conducted sooner. In May, NHTSA announced it would impose the maximum fine of $35 million for the delay, but safety advocates suggest that is not enough.

Auto Safety a Shared Responsibility

The current recall system relies heavily on self-reporting from automakers. Each year NHTSA receives over 45,000 complaints and only has 51 people who review those complaints. Although NHTSA has the power to initiate investigations and force recalls, the vast majority are self-reported and voluntarily initiated.

In the case of the GM recall, NHTSA was aware of some airbag failures but was unable to link the problem to the faulty switches. The agency has said that if GM had been more forthcoming with information, including a memo in 2009 from Continental that linked the two, it would have initiated an investigation.

Focus on Driver Safety

Although NHTSA has the power to police automakers, the primary focus of the safety agency over the years has been on raising awareness of issues such as drunk driving or seat belt use. “Human behavior remains the leading cause of highway crashes and deaths,” said Acting Administrator David Friedman. “These programs have shown enormous success over the years in driving down the number of deaths involving alcohol and driving up the percentages of vehicle occupants who wear seat belts.”

Traffic fatality statistics back-up NHTSA’s method. Since 1975, traffic fatalities have dropped from 44,525 to 33,516 in 2012 even though the number of drivers has increased. 


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