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As legislators buff a focus on how the National Highway Traffic Security Administration has handled the recall of nearly 8 million vehicles over flawed air bags, the matter of ‘geographic recalls’ will be taking some of the heat.
As per the official reports revealed, some of the automakers caught in the massive recall of air bags produced by the Takata Corp., a Japanese supplier, and accused in at least 4 deaths have chosen to limit those recalls, particularly in regions of high “absolute humidity,” such as Florida, Puerto Rico and Guam, where industry data suggest the airbag failures are most likely to occur.
Though, the critics of such limits said that, “they are negligent and ignoring many veracities of the market, including the mobility of American drivers.” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said, “The approach suspends logic and common sense.”
“A selective geographic recall is absolutely reckless and culpable when people living in other states may be equally at risk,” he told NBC News during a telephone interview.
Hien Tran, who died in Orlando, Florida hospital in early October, after a crash in her Honda Accord – she became the 4th victim of Takata’s faulty air bags.
A few weeks later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an exceptional alert informing owners of 7.8 million vehicles sold in the United Stated to request instant repairs because their airbags could suddenly burst in a crash. In the case of Tran’s accident, metal shards entered her neck, at first leading police investigators to think she had been stabbed.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a series of recalls by a long list of manufacturers, who used Takata air bags including Honda, Toyota, General Motors and BMW. Moreover, the NHTSA, along with some of those makers who have chosen to target vehicles, particularly sold in regions that experience “high absolute humidity,” as per the federal agency description. Absolute humidity is a measure of the amount of water vapor in a specific sample of air.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
A NHTSA’s spokesman, Brian Farber, said in a statement, “We have taken a hostile and relatively unique step by forcing a regional recall on limited information and we will not rest until we know the full geographic scope of the problem. The agency ‘will leave no stone unturned’ in its effort to find out why Takata airbags are failing.”
When asked for industry data that supports geographic limits on recalls, NHTSA referred to that statement; “We acutely regret that the recent recalls of vehicles equipped with our airbags have likely raised significant concerns and troubles to our product users, our customers, shareholders and other stakeholders,” Shigehisa Takada, CEO and Takata global chairman said in a statement.
In the recent years, there have been other supposed “geographic recalls”, including service actions by General Motors, Honda and Chrysler. However, Toyota has also recently used this targeted approach to address problems with excess deterioration on vehicles such as its Sienna minivan and Tacoma pickups after it found parts, such as a spare tire carrier, could fall off while driving. In that case, it limited the recall to states where salt is used expansively to clear winter roads.
In the recent times, the geographic recalls are coming under intense pressure from critics such as Senators Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, and Blumenthal, both of them have written sharply worded rebukes to the National Highway Traffic Security Administration over the handling of Takata’s recall.
They have said that NHTSA needs to recall all the cars equipped with Takata air bags. “We strongly condemn the issuance of a geographic based recall by NHTSA. NHTSA should immediately issue a nationwide safety recall on all affected cars, despite of where the car is registered,” the legislators said in a letter written on October 23 to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
As per the critics, the Tran’s fatal accident occurred in Florida and the other three known Takata air bag deaths occurred in Oklahoma, Virginia and California. “(N)one of those states (are) covered by the regional recalls,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the independent Center for Auto Safety.
Critics argue that geographic recalls by NHTSA is based on a false assumption: that vehicles are only owned and operated in specific areas where they might or might not be exposed to specific weather and road conditions.
They further argued that, cars are driven to other states and the market for used cars is now national. In decades past, a trade-in likely found a new owner nearby. Today, a large share of trade-ins passes through the vehicle auction system that might see a car shipped across country if high demand somewhere else would yield a higher resale price.
A typical vehicle is traded in every 3 to 4years, industry data reveal. An average vehicle now lasts at least 11 years, it could have been operated in three very different environments before being scrapped.
NHTSA ‘Not Dealing With the Issues’
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA Administrator and a frequent critic of the way the agency and the auto industry handle safety-related issues said, “NHTSA is not dealing with the issues.”
Claybrook argued how lawmakers could assertively limit the scope of the Takata recalls to Florida if NHTSA admits it doesn’t fully understand why the airbags are failing in the first place.
In response to the Claybrook statement, a Toyota spokesman John Hanson said, “The data clearly support focusing on areas like Southern Florida. We started collecting the air bags and Takata began testing them. The compiled data began to show that there was a higher percentage of air bag failure in the southern Gulf Coast than in other parts of the country. We know there’s a higher level of humidity in that area.”
Toyota formerly announced a nationwide recall for vehicles using Takata airbags, but has issued an updated advisory focusing on the Gulf region. Though, other makers, are focusing exclusively on high-humidity areas, Hanson added.
As part of an updated federal highway safety bill, Blumenthal and Markey want to have geographic recalls banned. In light of the massive General Motors ignition switch recall, the Connecticut lawmaker said there is strong bipartisan support that gives a new safety measure “a good shot” at passage in Congress.
Industry experts say, “Although there are opponents who want to keep the regional practice, in part, because it can make it easier to achieve a compromise between NHTSA and automakers who might otherwise balk at a broader, more expensive recall campaign.”
The NHTSA insider, who asked not to be named, citing agency policy, said that a manufacturer has to “contact us…and justify” limiting a recall by region. It is something the agency says it will approval cautiously, and only when clearly justified.