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Consumer Groups Challenge Regional Motor Vehicle Recalls

March 10, 2004

Consumer Groups Challenge Regional Motor Vehicle Recalls


Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen Sue to End NHTSA’s Dangerous Practice


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen filed a lawsuit today that challenges the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) policy of allowing vehicle manufacturers to limit certain recalls of defective vehicles to select states.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges that regional recalls violate the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, because the Act requires that all owners of defective motor vehicles receive notice and a free remedy; that NHTSA’s policy of permitting regional recalls has been applied arbitrarily; and in any event, that NHTSA illegally implemented the policy by failing to provide notice and solicit public comment before allowing the regional recalls.

As required by federal law, when either NHTSA or a manufacturer discovers a defect in a class of cars, the manufacturer notifies owners of affected vehicles nationwide that they are entitled to a free repair or replacement. However, since at least the mid-1980s, NHTSA has been quietly allowing manufacturers to conduct regional recalls by providing notice and a guaranteed free repair only to those owners whose cars are registered in selected states, usually covering less than half of the country.

Over the past 10 years, there have been nearly 40 regional recalls, with two announced in the past year. Manufacturers conduct regional recalls when a particular defect is more likely to manifest itself when exposed to regional weather conditions, like snow or heat.

For example, in 1999, Ford recalled Windstar minivans to correct a fuel tank defect that caused cracks in hot weather. These cracks could leak fuel and vapor, creating a serious fire hazard. With NHTSA’s blessing, Ford conducted a recall in 11 states, the 10 southernmost counties in California, and Clark County in Nevada. This left consumers in some of the hottest parts of the country – including California’s Death Valley, Tennessee, and New Mexico – without a guaranteed free repair.

Similarly, numerous recalls arising from defects attributed to corrosion caused by road salt have included Washington, D.C., and Maryland, but not Virginia, so commuters who drive from Virginia to Washington, D.C., every day for work are not guaranteed the same notice and free repair that their neighbors will get.

“Regional recalls make no sense, particularly in a mobile society where people often drive from one region to the next,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “If a vehicle has a defect that makes it unsafe, the defect needs to be fixed on all similar vehicles.”

Added Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, “NHTSA’s actions suggest that it doesn’t snow in Buffalo and it’s not hot in Death Valley. For years, NHTSA required manufacturers to conduct nationwide recalls. But the agency eventually gave in to automakers. Geographic recalls reduce auto company recall costs at the expense of public safety.”

Click here to view the complaint.