Senators unveil bill to require recall fixes

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Two senators on Monday introduced legislation Monday modeled after laws in Germany that would seek to require vehicle owners to get recalls completed before they could renew their license plates.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced legislation that would require state motor vehicle registration agencies to notify vehicle owners of open safety recalls to help ensure that owners get the safety recalls remedied. If states didn’t require owners to complete vehicle recalls before renewing their license plates, they would lose highway safety funds — much as states that don’t have strong drunken driving or seat belt laws are penalized.

“This legislation represents the three R’s of automotive safety: recall, repair, register,” Markey said. “We need to inform all vehicle owners of open safety recalls and ensure repairs get made quickly so our roads are kept safe. The RECALL Act will help prevent any more avoidable deaths from unrepaired recalls.”

Blumenthal said “unrepaired safety defects endanger everyone on America’s roadways. Important recall notices can get bogged down with legalese, and busy consumers can miss a lifesaving update. This legislation provides a common-sense avenue to ensure every driver is reminded and encouraged to make the necessary repairs and keep unsafe cars off the roads.”

Owners would have some narrow exemptions: If an owner wasn’t notified of the recall when the registration renewal reminder came out or the manufacturer lacks the parts or labor to complete the recall, or the vehicle owner demonstrates there was no reasonable opportunity to fulfill the recall then the state agency could grant a temporary registration of up to 60 days.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others — said the group was studying the bill. “Consumers getting recalled vehicles repaired quickly is very important. All alliance members want to see high recall completion rates. However, knowing more about this proposal’s specifics would be important to us,” he said.

The measure comes after Congress has held a series of hearings about major auto safety issues involving General Motors ignition switches and Takata air bags. In 2014, a record 63.95 million vehicles were recalled in the United States — more than twice the previous record set in 2004.

Other bills have previously sought to require used car dealers and rental car firms to complete recalls before selling or renting a vehicle to a customer. It’s the latest in a series of auto safety measures proposed in the last year — but none have yet passed.

Since 2008, automakers have recalled about 17 million vehicles with Takata air bags in the United states that can rupture when they deploy, producing fragments that can kill or seriously injure occupants; those air bags are linked to at least six deaths in Honda vehicles and 64 injuries industrywide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week upgraded an investigation into 11.5 million vehicles with Takata air bags to determine if recalls should be expanded.

Takata said Monday it met with automakers and its outside firm, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, to offer an update on its testing to determine the root cause of the air bag inflator failures.

Shigehisa Takada, chairman and CEO of Takata, said the testing “so far has supported our initial analysis that age and long-term exposure over a period of many years to a climate of persistent heat and high absolute humidity are significant factors in the small number of inflators that have malfunctioned. Variability in vehicle makes and models is an additional factor indicated by the testing results thus far, and Takata also continues to consider variability in the inflator manufacturing process as a potential contributing factor.”

Takata has dramatically increased the production of air bag replacement kits in support of automotive recalls and safety campaigns. It’s producing 450,000 replacement kits per month, up from 350,000 in December, and expects to be producing approximately 900,000 kits per month by September. Takata said it “remains confident that newer inflators and those not exposed to prolonged humidity and heat are safe.”

The Government Accountability Office said in a 2011 report that in 2010, Germany revoked owners’ registration “due to outstanding safety recalls more than 1,000 times, and in general, the agency regularly uses this authority.” Other major countries don’t have this authority including in Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Honda North America executive vice president Rick Schostek and Stephanie Erdman, a Florida woman who was seriously injured in a Honda air bag deployment, wrote in a joint essay published in Automotive News that they backed Markey’s effort. Both testified before Congress in November

Erdman, an Air Force lieutenant, was injured in a September 2013 crash when she was driving her 2002 Honda Civic near Destin, Fla., on her way to get groceries. She sued Honda after the crash, but a Honda spokesman, Jeffrey Smith, said the case had been settled. He said the op-ed was not part of the settlement and Erdman wasn’t paid for it.

In November, Erdman recounted what happened when she bought her Civic.

“I took my car into that dealership for service three times after they received the recall notice for my car. They never told me about the recall. They never performed the recall repair on my vehicle. And they never warned me about what might happen if my air bag deployed,” she said.

The pair said Monday it is time to make getting recalls fixed mandatory.

“In every state of the union, vehicle owners are already required to register and license their vehicles. We believe the process of vehicle registration is a logical point to require an additional check for any open safety recalls in order to ensure that repairs are completed,” they wrote. “The reality is that the majority of the Takata air bag ruptures to date have involved vehicles that are more than 10 years old. Despite millions of notifications in both English and Spanish, the use of phone calls, unique mail campaigns and even the use of private investigators to help track down customers, too many recall repairs remain uncompleted. This is why we are joining forces to advocate for a new requirement to check for safety recalls at the time of vehicle registration.”

Honda last year proposed a requirement that all outstanding safety recall repairs be completed before a vehicle can be legally registered.

The pair noted that some states already require safety or emissions checks.

“Many states already decline vehicle registration renewals until the owner’s vehicle passes a tailpipe emissions test. And this is now a routine part of the registration process for millions of American vehicle owners,” they wrote. “If each state will require that open recalls related to safety issues also be addressed before completing registration, the risk of death and injury to people in unrepaired older model vehicles will be greatly reduced.

“When automakers mail recall notices, customers might miss a recall entirely due to a change of address. Or, if the owner does receive a notice, it might be discarded in error because they think it is junk mail. And sometimes, the owner might intend to get the repair completed, but doesn’t recognize the importance and simply forgets or cannot find the time.”

The pair also said that “we want to be clear that automakers will always have a critical responsibility in notifying owners. And all dealerships and repair facilities should be required to check for, and notify the customer of, any open recalls when a vehicle is in for service, or when selling a used vehicle.”

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has called for a national database of car owners to make it easier to find current owners of recalled vehicles.

In February, NHTSA vowed to increase the rate at which recalls are actually completed. The department said that with added resources, NHTSA would develop a consumer awareness campaign for owners to get recalled cars fixed.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com