NHTSA Finds Many Owners Ignoring Safety Recall Notices

December 5, 2009
Heres an interesting paradox: even as the auto industry faced a record number of 2007 recalls 712 -- the physical number of cars recalled was well down from the record number of cars recalled only three years before.

 In 2004 there were 620 recalls, involving 30.8 million vehicles, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures, however, by 2007 the number of vehicles recalled fell to just over 10 million, while number of recalls increased.

That the number of cars dropped off by more than 20 million, as MSN Autos has pointed out, because the industry showed marked gains in overall quality. It had good reason to show improvement. The reason was the TREAD Act (Transportation Recall Enforcement Authenticity and Documentation) Act.

The direct result of the Firestone/Ford Explorer fiasco (where low-quality tires were delivered to Ford for its ever-popular Explorer series) where tire defects accounted injuries and deaths and nearly ruined the Firestone company and put a dent in Fords reputation for several years (from which both have recovered), the TREAD Act requires an early warning system if defects are suspected, a recall must be issued.

If a company knows or suspects there are defects in a model, then it faces fines of $955,000 to $15 million. Automakers have an incentive to make this congressional plan work because they face jail time if they even think of covering up a defect.

Interestingly, the auto industry has used this to its advantage. In a clever public relations move, automakers routinely announce voluntary recalls, even if the recalls are only for a relatively few cars. Thats why 2007 saw so many recalls. It does show the public that the auto industry is trying to act in good faith when it voluntarily recalls a vehicle.

Even this type of proactive behavior can have its downside, though. In 1999, for example, Ford found that its cruise control activation module was faulty and contributed to many fires, even after cars were shut down.  The automaker used this module in some 16 million vehicles and 14 million of those vehicles are on the road, noted Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Automotive Safety, located in Washington.

Ditlow and other safety critics have noted that Ford seems to have been dragging its feet on this issue and that it is facing a problem that could cost it hundreds of millions. Indeed, the foot-dragging issue has aggravated NHTSA to the point where it has issued a special advisory on this problem something unheard of advising consumers to disconnect the cruise to fix the problem.

The automaker is facing quite a dilemma. From the other side of the service counter, it is similar to the issues faced by consumers who wonder whether they should act on a service recall or just let it slide. If you were to listen to some of the complaints that spur the recalls, injuries, accidents, fatalities and more, you would wonder why anyone would let a recall postcard go unanswered.

However, millions of drivers do let this occur, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed to MSN Autos recently. Their statistics show that 25 percent of all car owners ignore recalls. It gets worse when the recall is for something like child safety equipment where 50 percent of car owners generally ignore recall notices. Even tire recalls where the potential for a catastrophic failure is among the highest on a vehicle fully 30 percent of all owners ignore recall notices.

Its not as if the federal agency hasnt tried pushing, shoving, cajoling or forcing various parts of the auto industry to do the right thing. Since its formation in 1966, NHTSA has issued recalls on millions of vehicles for various problems.

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