While the General Motors ignition switch recall has dominated recent automotive headlines, it has been far from the only major automaker to face recent massive legal challenges. Over 60 million vehicles were recalled in 2014, and the 80,000 complaints received was more than twice the previous record set in 2004. Each of the top 8 automakers faced above-average recall totals. The problems leading up to these recalls didn’t begin in 2014, however, as some of these vehicles date back to the early 1990’s. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), responsible for enforcing auto safety standards, has been overwhelmed by the complaints and investigations of safety failures in recent years. This begs the questions, what were they doing before becoming inundated with these safety issues, and would a more pre-emptive approach have saved lives and dollars?
Already under fire for its lax testing standards of the ET-Plus Guardrail and manufacturer Trinity Industries, the NHTSA will undoubtedly receive fallout for its handling of Fiat-Chrysler in the trial involving the death of a 4-year old boy in 2012. The trial, which began on March 24th, will include gruesome details of the boy burning while strapped in the back seat of his aunt’s 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was rear-ended at an intersection causing the gas tank to explode. Although the NHTSA investigated the placement of the gas tank, suspected of being located too close to the rear bumper to pass safety standards, they eventually ruled against a mandatory recall. Fiat-Chrysler voluntarily began adding tow-hitches to the vehicles claiming that they would counterbalance the placement of the gas tank. The NHTSA concurred and dropped the investigation in 2013. Safety advocates argue that this fix is not enough to prevent explosions in high-speed collisions.
Adding to the controversy, the lead negotiator of the limited recall for the NHTSA took a position with the Fiat-Chrysler legal team shortly after the compromise was reached. Suspicion of cronyism is nothing new for the NHTSA. In fact, 63 former NHTSA employees have gone on to work for automakers since 1984. In 2010, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill to bar former NHTSA employees for working with automakers for 3 years. The “revolving door,” which Boxer referred to the relationship, has certainly continued to this day, with one high-level executive working for Toyota, as well as several former employees working as legal counsel for companies facing scrutiny by the NHTSA. Although these firms will argue that former NHTSA employees’ public experience gives them unique expertise in dealing with the issues that the automakers face, one has to wonder if personal relationships are clouding the sense of urgency when it comes to vehicle safety.
Autoblog.com –Jonathon Ramsey
New York Times –Bill Vlasic and Hilary Stout
New York Times – Christopher Jensen and Matthew L. Wald
The Tico Times –Erik Larson and Margaret Cronin-Fisk