We’ve long struggled with finding the right balance of recall coverage here at TTAC, as the sheer volume of them makes it extremely difficult to separate the life-saving wheat from the irrelevant chaff. Now, it seems the rental car industry is tired of struggling with the same challenge and is lobbying the government for reform of the recall system. Bob Barton of the American Car Rental Association explains the problem to the NYT
We can’t determine the significance of a recall and whether a vehicle is no longer safe to operate or whether it can continue to operate and then should simply be brought in for service at some point in time. We simply want the manufacturers to instruct us when a vehicle needs to be grounded and we will absolutely comply.
Fair enough. Recalls are carried out for plenty of non-safety-critical problems. But where do you draw that line? And, more importantly, does the rental industry enjoy enough of a reputation for safety consciousness to assure customers that their calls for reform won’t result in any increased danger?
It turns out that these two questions are actually closely related. Despite its framing of this lobbying issue as a matter of practical reform, the rental car industry is actually responding to a NHTSA investigation that recently found
30 days after a recall — 10 to 30 percent of vehicles sold to rental car companies had been repaired.
By 90 days, it had improved to about 30 percent and within a year, the number had improved to 50 percent or higher…
Rental car companies are not legally required to complete recalls before they rent the cars to customers.
This finding, that rental firms aren’t legally compelled to rent fully recall-compliant vehicles and that recalls take months to receive fixes, raises serious questions about the industry’s ability to guarantee the safety of their vehicles. Given the lack of legal pressure to comply with any recall, the NYT asked Barton how rental firms respond to recalls in the status quo.
Asked how recalls are handled now, Mr. Barton said: “If we get a notice that says the vehicle needs to be grounded, every company will set their own policy. But as a general rule I would suggest everybody would ground that vehicle.”
Asked about recalls for which the automaker does not say the vehicle should be parked until fixed?
“Every company will set their own policy, but ultimately that repair will get done, but maybe not immediately,” he said.
Not the most reassuring responses ever, to be sure. And given NHTSA’s investigation into the timeliness of rental fleets’ recal repairs, it seems obvious that this lobbying effort is a way to keep the industry operating without increased repair costs should NHTSA (or Congress) demand timely compliance with recalls. But without a coherent industry position, it’s hard to put its lobby arm in the driver’s seat of reforms to the nation’s entire recall system. As a result, a number of consumer groups have already voiced opposition to the ACRA’s initiative.
On the other hand, the ACRA insists that not even taxi or shuttle bus fleets are able to comply with the sheer volume of recalls, so a measure requiring the same level of recall compliance as new car dealers could have impacts beyond the rental car industry which has already attracted scrutiny. If NHTSA wants to take on the challenge and risk of creating a graded recall system, it should do so as a way to improve the communication of defects rather than a way to enable businesses who cut costs on safety. But if that happens and deaths from rental car and taxi malfunctions increases, there will be no evil lobbyists to scapegoat. NHTSA will have abdicated its mandate. Reforming the recall system is a big step and it should be done extremely carefully.