Vehicle recalls are regularly in the news, warning of inadvertent air bag deployments, faulty door latches, even risks of fire, not to mention the ongoing Takata air bag recall that dwarfs all others.
But the steady stream of recalls masks the fact that about 30 percent of recalled vehicles remain unrepaired on America’s roads, according to federal statistics.
Last year was a record for U.S. vehicle recalls – more than 53 million in 927 separate recalls – but those numbers are only the latest, with the total number of recalls increasing in each year back to 2011 when the number stood at 13.6 million, according to information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
There are numerous reasons recalled vehicles go unrepaired even though getting them fixed does not cost the vehicle owner. They include perceptions about the severity of a recall, and to a lack of available parts – some dealers also sell used cars with open recalls – but often vehicle owners may simply not know that their vehicle is under recall.
“The greatest challenge is making contact with the current owner of the vehicle. Vehicles may change hands many times over their lifecycle,” said Mark Chernoby, chief technical compliance officer for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which is involved in two different programs to notify vehicle owners about recalls.
FCA recently announced it is working with repair estimate company CCC Information Services to notify owners of FCA vehicles involved in the Takata recall when they bring the vehicles in to collision repair shops. So far, 56,000 have been identified. CCC says it is also working with Honda on a similar program. The Takata recall involves 19 automakers and affects 42 million vehicles.
With notification being such a key roadblock in the recall process, a logical starting point for resolving the issue would seem to be the agency with the most information about what people drive, namely each state’s department of motor vehicles.
Only one state – Maryland – applied for a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to notify consumers of open recalls when they register their vehicles. Starting in April, the Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration, with assistance from Cox Automotive, will launch its two-year pilot program under a $222,300 federal grant announced last month.
For Chrissy Nizer, administrator of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration, providing recall information is a natural extension of her agency’s mission to promote safety. Drivers, including those with young children, would likely appreciate getting recall information through their registration renewal paperwork.
Maryland’s program is simply a notification. It will not prevent someone from renewing a registration.
“We felt like it was a good way to be able to provide information to the customer (so they can) hopefully be able to act on it quickly and get it resolved,” Nizer said.
Maryland’s philosophy on recall information, however, is markedly different from that of Michigan, where Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, focused on who is ultimately responsible.
“We view it as a manufacturer’s responsibility to notify owners of a recall and also, at least in the short term, it would be . burdensomely costly to the department to participate,” Woodhams said, acknowledging that the department was aware of the grant program but saying it has no plans to participate. “(Automakers are) the ones that made the car in the first place.”
In Maryland, Nizer said the federal grant will pay for the data collection that will be needed. She said there would be no additional costs for notification because the forms that are sent out already exist.
Nizer declined to weigh in on why another state might have decided not to apply for the grant, but she said the program will not absolve anyone of potential responsibility.
“Certainly, the manufacturers have a role to play in recall information and that will continue.” Nizer said. “We are not taking responsibility from the manufacturer.”
Ian Grossman, vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, suggested that such differences in philosophy could have something to do with what each office is facing in terms of workload demands.
All state motor vehicle administrators are concerned about the safety impact of vehicle recalls, even the ones that are not currently taking active roles such as in the case of the Maryland effort, said Grossman, noting also that some states may want to see the results of the Maryland program before starting their own.
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