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When the 2002 Honda Civic crashed into the back of another car in a Houston suburb, authorities said the impact was moderate, and that everyone should have “been able to walk away,” according to a sheriff’s deputy. Instead, the Honda’s 17-year-old driver bled to death.
The young woman likely would have survived, it turned out, had a defective airbag been replaced, something Honda claims it attempted to do, sending out six recall notices since the service action was first announced in 2011.
The incident, the latest of 11 deaths linked to defective Takata airbags, was by no means a rare incident. Safety experts say there have been a growing of crashes, injuries and fatalities in recent years involving vehicles with potentially life-threatening defects that haven’t been fixed, despite ongoing recalls. Vehicle tracking service CarFax claims more than 30 million such vehicles are on the road.
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And that number is climbing rapidly, what with the number of U.S. recalls reaching 51 million last year, setting the second consecutive record.
“The penalty for a failure to do a recall is going way up,” said former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Joan Claybrook, a frequent critic of the auto industry’s safety record. “That may be encouraging manufacturers to get these things behind them.”
Part of the problem is the size of many recent recalls. Manufacturers today try to reduce costs — improving “economies of scale,” in industry-speak — by sharing as many underlying components as possible. General Motors used the defective ignition switch linked to over 120 fatalities in a variety of different models, leading it to recall 2.4 million vehicles in 2014.
There have so far been over 24 million vehicles, sold by 14 different automakers, impacted by the Takata recall.
Complicating matters, many of those vehicles were first sold more than a decade ago. And, as was the case with the 2002 Honda involved in the Texas crash, they might have been resold several times since then. Tracking down the current owner can be next to impossible when a manufacturer tries to send out so-called “577 Letters,” the term used for recall notices, reflecting the federal statute that covers them.
Even the most deadly defects involving relatively recent models have historically generated repair rates of no more than 75 percent. Problems with older vehicles, especially issues considered minor (such as incorrect door stickers advising motorists of proper tire inflation rates) dip to 30 percent, sometimes even lower.
So far, only about 27 percent of the vehicles covered by the Takata recall have been fixed, though in that case, the total number of affected models is so great that manufacturers have struggled to find the necessary replacement parts.
While NHTSA has been pressing the industry to be more pro-active about fixing safety problems, Administrator Mark Rosekind also has been pushing manufacturers to take whatever steps necessary to find owners and get them to come in for repairs.
“Rosekind told us he wants to get response rates to 100 percent,” said Hyundai Motor America CEO Dave Zukowski, who insisted that goal is all but impossible, though he accepts the idea his company will have to up its game when ordering new recalls.
General Motors and Honda have gone as far as offering financial incentives — GM gave out gift cards to boost response rates to the ignition switch recall.
Going forward, safety advocates believe new regulations will likely be necessary. NHTSA has supported proposals that would require repairs before owners could register or re-register their vehicles. So far, that idea hasn’t gained the necessary support in Congress, however.
Lawmakers did finally approve another, long-stalled measure late last year. That law requires rental car companies to pull vehicles from their fleets until repairs have been made. The Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act was named for two California sisters killed in a crash of a Chrysler PT Cruiser they’d gotten from Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
Efforts to get car dealers to pull used vehicles off their lots until they get fixed didn’t gain the necessary traction, though mega-retailer AutoNation did move unilaterally last September to take such a step.
“There’s no way to expect that customers would or should know of every safety recall on every vehicle they might purchase, so we will ensure that our vehicles have all recalls completed,” said AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson.
As the recent Texas crash shows, any vehicle traveling the roads with an un-repaired defect could be deadly. The number of those vehicles continues to grow, but there’s so far no consensus on what the next steps must be to resolve this problem.