No agreement on how to reform nation's recall system

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

A "recall is a recall" under current federal safety regulations. Have a peeling safety label? That's a recall. Have a potentially fatal defect? That's a recall.

There are no official processes to warn consumers of the severity of a potential problem with their car or truck in the U.S.

In the midst of a record year of recalls that has Washington, D.C., watching the automotive industry more than any other time since the 2009 bailout, some believe it is the right time to reform the nation's recall system under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But there's no agreement on exactly how to do it.

"A recall's a recall, and that's a problem," said Mark Reuss, GM's head of global product development, purchasing and supply chain, on the sidelines last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show. "There needs to be a sophistication of how serious is the recall? And that has to be really clear to a customer. I think the industry is beginning to do that."

The industry has scratched the surface by categorizing recalls as "safety" or "noncompliance," but they're both under the recall umbrella that warrant a mailing to consumers.

Some car owners, though, mistake safety recall notices for junk mail and toss them without opening them. Or owners may not think a recall is serious and opt not to get their cars fixed right away — or at all.

The average recall completion rate in the U.S. is about 75 percent each year, but the rate for older vehicles is much lower, according to NHTSA. With all the recalls happening this year, that percentage could decrease as consumers are bombarded with recall campaigns.

"Whether it's an ignition cylinder or a sticker on a door, a recall is a recall," said Toyota North America CEO James E. Lentz last month in Los Angeles. "I do worry that that fatigue sets in and consumers may not act as quickly as they should on big safety issues."

Automakers have recalled nearly 60 million cars and trucks this year, shattering the all-time record set in 2004 of 30.4 million.

Ann Allstrom, senior manager of recall solutions at IHS Automotive, believes customers do understand that there are different levels of severity of a recall even without an official system, but said, "It does get confusing a little bit, given all of the recalls that are happening at this point in time."

Last year, David Strickland, then head of NHTSA, said the Obama administration opposed any attempt to classify recalls by severity.

"There is one standard for safety that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration follows and enforces. We deal with unreasonable risk to safety. We don't gradate them. If there is a judgment that it is an unreasonable risk, it's an unreasonable risk and it needs to be repaired," Strickland told a Senate panel in May 2013. "The notion that there should be some gradation of unreasonable risk is frankly counter to the policy for safety, and frankly, dangerous."

Equal risks

Strickland used Toyota Motor Corp.'s recall due to unsecured floor mats that trapped accelerator pedals or made it difficult to stop as an example of a seemingly small problem with major consequences: "... The Saylor family in San Diego, four people died because of an unsecured mat. So you can't say that these risks are small or large. They can all possibly injure or kill someone, and they have to be addressed equally."

The issue came up as Congress debated whether to require auto dealers or rental car companies to repair used cars before selling them or renting them.

The National Automobile Dealers Association last year urged Congress to limit any requirements for rental cars to those that require immediate repairs, such as stalling, braking, sticky accelerators or other crucial components.

Vehicle registrations

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Auto Safety, said requiring auto dealers to repair used cars before selling them could be one way to make sure serious problems with vehicles are fixed in a timely manner. Another proven method, he said, is withholding vehicle registrations until outstanding recalls are fixed.

"It clearly is the most effective way to go," he said Wednesday during a phone interview, adding that countries such as Germany achieve 100 percent recall completion rates with the registration rules.

Ditlow, whose research group has been tracking recalls and defects since it was founded in 1970, said he would like to see the NHTSA give grants to states to help solve the issue of lingering recalls. "When you register a vehicle, you have to have all outstanding recalls completed," he said during a separate interview last month.

States' responsibility

Registrations, however, are controlled on a state-by-state basis — putting the responsibility to track recalls and fixes on each state government.

California doesn't allow drivers to renew vehicle registrations without a smog check. The California Department of Motor Vehicles holds license tags until drivers can prove they have passed the inspection, which is mandatory on vehicles 6 years and older.

But holding registrations or license tags for recalls could cause other problems — from tracking the fixes to delays in parts availability.

"That's one of the main issues that the (carmakers) deal with, is having the parts available in a timely manner," said IHS Automotive's Allstrom, using the ongoing recall of millions of vehicles with Takata air bags as an example of a parts shortage.

Amid the millions of recalls this year, NHTSA did take steps for consumers to easily learn if their vehicle has an open recall. As of Aug. 14, automakers had to provide a free online search of a recalled car's vehicle identification number on their websites, allowing owners and potential buyers to see if a recall has been completed. NHTSA's site,, also offers the search.

(313) 222-2504

Staff Writers Melissa Burden and David Shepardson contributed.