When Jack Baruth wrote a post about Chevy Sonics being recalled for missing brake pads, some readers thought that TTAC might be cherry picking the recall reports, perhaps because of some institutional prejudices around here. Jack pointed out that recalls are a fairly frequent thing whereas cars shipped without functioning brakes are hopefully a much rarer, and thus newsworthy occurrence. In another newsworthy event, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called on NHTSA, the federal agency that handles things like car and truck recalls, to explain its actions in regard to how it investigated and reported the events surrounding the reported fire in a Chevy Volt that NHTSA had crash tested and flipped over.
Congressional hearings are newsworthy even though they usually are dog and pony shows. This was no exception. I’m as skeptical of government agencies as anyone but the Chevy Volt fire story is one huge nothingburger. No real world fire hazard probably existed and whatever minor changes GM is making on the Volt are painting the lily. If I was going to grill NHTSA about car fire safety, I’d ask them about how they managed to administer a fire safety related recall so well that they’ve now had to recall the same vehicles a second time because 86 improperly serviced vehicles on the first recall go-round subsequently caught fire.
Now it’s not NHTSA’s fault that the recall wasn’t performed properly. It’s not even the fault of the manufacturer, Ford, because it was the manufacturer’s own investigations that revealed the problem: dealer technicians weren’t doing their jobs properly. In some cases they didn’t do their jobs at all – on a fire safety related recall! Still if the House committee wants oversight, perhaps it should be asking NHTSA and the automakers what procedures are in place to make sure that safety related recall repairs are actually done.
The present recall involves about 297,000 Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute compact SUVs from the 2001 and 2002 model years. The actual defect is a leaking cap on the master brake cylinder fluid reservoir. Leaking brake fluid could drip onto an ABS module connector, causing corrosion and a possible short circuit. In the initial recall, technicians were supposed to replace the cap, visually inspect the wiring harness, and apply electrical grease to the connector. After 86 vehicles that already had been recalled experienced what NHTSA calls underhood fires and Ford calls thermal events confined to the involved components, Ford investigated. They found that in many cases the visual inspection had not been done or not done properly. To do the inspection properly, a factory tie-wrap had to have been removed and the wraps were still intact. In some cases, insufficient grease was used. In other cases the wrong grease was used. Electrical grease is used because of its insulating qualities. Some automotive greases are packed with metallic compounds and can conduct, not insulate, electricity. Finally, in some cases nothing was done. The tie was still in place and no grease had been applied, but the tech checked off on the repair.
Not everything needs to be criminalized. Still, there should be come kind of system in place, by NHTSA and the manufacturers, to make sure that safety related recall repairs actually get done and that if repair fraud is involved, perhaps criminal penalties might not be such a bad idea. At the least a dealer that fraudulently claims to have performed safety related recall repairs should risk losing their franchise and their business license.
In the meantime, NHTSA is warning owners of 2001 and 2002 Tributes and Escapes to park them out of doors so as not to risk a garage or house fire.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS