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Safety advocates demand better recall effectiveness; NHTSA under fire

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established in 1970 primarily to reduce deaths and injuries related to motor vehicle crashes. But safety advocates now accuse the agency of being “asleep at the wheel.”

A recent article published in the non-profit newsletter ‘Fair Warning’ says that under the Trump administration, the agency has failed to complete numerous safety standards that would help reduce vehicle-related crashes, injuries, and deaths. The story reveals civil settlements with automakers and manufacturers for offenses such as hiding safety defects and delaying recalls. Social media and other consumer publications are widely circulating the exposé.

Meanwhile, traffic deaths have been on the rise since settling at an annual low of 32,000 in 2011. From 2015 to 2019, almost 200,000 people died in the U.S. from motor vehicle accidents. In 2018 and 2017, over two million people were injured in a car crash each year. Safety advocates argue that defective vehicles that remain on the road greatly contribute to these numbers.

Automotive Recalls By the Numbers

Recalls had been growing at the same rate as auto deaths until recent years. Now, however, they seem to have reached a plateau, despite the sensational headlines.

In 2020, we saw 739 recalls, down only 10.2% recalls from 2019’s 823 recalls. But we are only starting to see the potential impact of some of the most alarming safety issues of this past year: lithium batteries catching fire in electric vehicles, and faulty seat belts. We expect investigations into these issues to continue well into 2021 and new regulations to follow.

Calls to Improve Recall Effectiveness

Recalls remained fairly steady in 2021, considering the significant regulatory and business challenges presented by a global pandemic. But scrutiny is only increasing as consumer safety advocates call on NHTSA, regulators, and automakers to improve the recall effectiveness rates.

A July 2020 Congressional Research Service report to Congress found that the combined annual completion rate for all automakers subject to a recall between 2010 and 2014 was 67%, with the remaining 33% of vehicles still out on the road. But what is most noteworthy about these numbers are their origin. These statistics are the result of an analysis required under the terms of the FAST Act of 2015 which, among other priorities, aimed to improve recall effectiveness. However, many of the safety issues identified within the FAST Act of 2015 are still unresolved – a focus of the Congressional Research Service report and an indicator that more rulemaking is to come.

Experts say improving recall effectiveness rates is critical to reducing traffic deaths and injuries. With pressure mounting on NHTSA and the arrival of the new Biden administration, major changes in the regulatory environment are likely. We may see increased action from NHTSA as well as stricter protocols and regulations for recalls.

Automakers – now’s the time for you to re-think, re-evaluate, and further improve your recall processes.

How effective is your plan in reaching all consumers that are at risk?

Reaching drivers who are preoccupied with their everyday lives has for a long time proved to be a challenge. But manufacturers must continue to work at reaching “non-responders.”

Does your recall plan and approach prepare you for effective notification?

Remember to consider that everyone’s different. Some consumers may prefer receiving a recall notification through a phone call or mail, while others may prefer receiving the information through social media or a digital application connected to their car. But regardless of the channel, what is most important is ensuring you have accurate data to conduct the notification, and then leveraging that information to the fullest.

While NHTSA and manufacturers across the nation are diligently working to improve recall effectiveness rates, more still needs to be done. Without more attention to the issue, more wakeup calls like the Fair Warning article and more stringent regulation from NHTSA are sure to come.

As leaders in the automotive industry, it is our responsibility to stress the risks associated with open safety recalls and encourage vehicle owners to take action to resolve the issue. While automakers and other leaders in the industry continue to innovate new ways to reach drivers, open recalls can still be found on NHTSA’s website.

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