In an interview with Automotive News (registration required), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration director David Strickland said that if automakers want to keep their cars and trucks from getting recalled, those cars must not just meet standards in effect at the time vehicles are produced, but that the car companies must also make sure they stay as safe, statistically, as competitors’ products that use different designs.
Though he didn’t explicitly say so, his remarks could be read as saying that the agency will aggressively pursue recalls even though the involved vehicles met all standards in effect when they were built. Companies apparently will not be able to avoid recalls by saying that their cars and trucks met all applicable standards when sold new. Strickland’s comments were made against the backdrop of the voluntary inspection and retrofitting of trailer hitches on some Jeep models to reduce the risk of punctures to the rear mounted gas tanks in the event of rear collisions
“It really is based on the notion of unreasonable risk. And that is an evolving notion,” Strickland told the AN. He said that NHTSA is obligated to reassess risks “if state of the art moves all the peers in one direction, and it appears that there is another part of the fleet that has not made those same moves or improvements.” If car makers want to avoid recalls, they’ll have to remain “within the zone of reasonable risk”.
When Chrysler was first ordered to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs, the company claimed that the agency was changing the rules. The dispute raised the issue as to what exactly is a “standard” if that standard is fluid and subject to retroactive change. ”NHTSA seems to be holding Chrysler Group to a new standard for fuel tank integrity that does not exist now and did not exist when the Jeep vehicles were manufactured,” the company at first said after the recall was announced, though as mentioned the company and NHTSA came to an agreement about Chrysler doing the inspections and retrofits voluntarily.
Though Strickland said that the use of fluid standards isn’t the result of any new interpretation of the laws the agency enforces, he also said that using the “reasonable risk” standard was a tactical solution to “upgrading” standards when the slow pace of changing the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards legislatively doesn’t move fast enough in the agency’s opinion.
“It’s very hard to change or upgrade a federal motor vehicle safety standard,” he said. “Sometimes it can be decades. Sometimes it can be 20 or 30 years.” Using a standard that changes retroactively based on the concept of reasonable risk, the NHTSA director added, allows the agency to “to backstop the inability to reach back and upgrade standards – because of cost and time and all sorts of other factors.”