Unsafe At Any Sense: Ralph Nader Punks Chinese Auto Parts Makers

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
unsafe at any sense ralph nader punks chinese auto parts makers

Failed four time presidential candidate and god of all ambulance chasers Ralph Nader has found a new enemy: China. The Center for Auto Safety, founded by Ralph Nader with part of the $425K court settlement paid by GM in 1970 for invasion of his privacy, has been researching recalls of Chinese auto parts. Those recalls are now posted on the safety center’s website. The New York Times took the bait, and ran a long story under the headline “Recalls of Chinese Auto Parts Are a Mounting Concern.” If the NYT would have just taken 20 minutes of research, they would have found that they’ve been snowed.

“There are so many automotive products coming in from China that American safety officials can’t keep track of them,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told the Times. Opening salvo, five miles off target. The U.S. Customs Service has a record of every part entering the country. American safety officials are not mandated to keep track of them. Every part of every country may freely roam the U.S. of A.

So, on it’s own, the Center for Auto Safety went to the trouble of tracking down failed Chinese products.

After an exhaustive search, Nader’s Center for Auto Safety found 24 recalls of Chinese products, listed in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) records for the years 2007 and 2008. The 24 incidents involve a total of 1.2m products.

The high numbers were caused by three companies.

Eagle Eyes Traffic Industrial Co., Ltd. imported 404.546 replacement headlight assemblies which “do not contain required amber side reflectors.” Foreign Tire Sales, Inc. became infamous by importing 255k (some say 450k) Chinese tires which were in danger of tread separation. Harbor Freight Tools imported 295k fuses which took too long to blow.

Ditlow said his review convinces him that “too many Chinese companies are unfamiliar with – or don’t care about – safety standards” in the United States, and thus don’t meet them. According to Ditlow, automotive equipment made in China is less likely to comply with safety standards than the same product made in the United States. “The companies in North America know that process,” Ditlow said.

A quick analysis of the NHTSA database shows that Mr. Ditlow doesn’t know what he is talking about.

The NHTSA database lists 76,525 recalls since 1966. From 2007 to date– the period analyzed by the Center for Auto Safety– NHTSA lists 13,482 recalls. The database identifies the manufacturer or importer of the recalled product. It does not identify the country of origin.

The Center for Auto Safety found 24 products on the list made in China. That amounts to 0.18 percent. The NYT also did not find newsworthy that “China” is the only country listed on Nader’s website under “Import Recalls.” The countries of origin of the remaining 13,458 recalls remain unmentioned.

Also overlooked (and under-reported): during the same period, the database lists 419 recalls by Chrysler LLC, 678 recalls by Ford Motor Co, and a whopping 1,410 recalls by General Motors Corp.

The onus for creating a solid understanding of the safety standards sits squarely on the importer. United States federal law puts responsibility for the safety of the product on the American importer. The importer has to specify the factors that bring the product in compliance with U.S. regulations. The importer must verify that the imported part is in full compliance.

It is very easy to import auto parts to the United States and Canada. Some say, much too easy. There is no oversight. No prior verification is required by a governmental agency or authorized testing entity before the vehicle or equipment can be imported, sold or used. If reason develops to believe that a part does not meet standards, then authorities may conduct tests. If a noncompliance is found, a recall can be ordered.

The rest of the world operates on the principles established by the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, a body of the United Nations. 58 countries, from Azerbaijan to New Zealand, are signatories to a common set of ECE Regulations for type approval of vehicles and components. Other countries, even if not formally participating in the agreement, recognize the ECE Regulations. They either mirror the ECE regulations content in their own national requirements, or permit the use and importation of ECE-approved vehicles or parts.

More than 120 ECE regulations cover most safety-relevant aspects. Each part or vehicle must successfully be tested as part of the type approval. The tests are performed by accredited, independent labs. Manufacturers must be audited. Production must likewise be in strict compliance with the certification. If non-compliant parts are found, the manufacturer– not the importer– can lose the certification.

In most countries that signed the agreement, using a non-certified part or vehicle is illegal. This is one of the reasons why one hears very little noise about Chinese quality from European countries. Prodded by Detroit (and most likely the Association of Ambulance Chasers) the U.S.A. refused to join the United Nations body.

And that’s the truth.

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  • Geeber Geeber on Dec 22, 2008
    psharjinian: Nader’s point with regards to the Covair was that it was far too easy for non-engineers to get into real trouble. The car’s dynamics were pathetically sensitive to tire pressures, and those pressure requirements were bizarre. Note that there were already several lawsuits against GM prior to Nader even getting involved; heck, it was the volume of suits that prompted his investigation. "Different" and "requires more maintenance" are not synonomous with "unsafe." Mr. Nader apparently had trouble making this distinction, which says more about him than anything about the Corvair. Regarding the early Corvair cases, GM was winning them, too. But, in one case, GM's insurance carrier settled out of court (I believe it was the Perini case), which enraged GM, and encouraged the company to take a more active role in the defense of the Corvair. Many of the cases were then consolidated into one big case. The lead case involved a young man who was killed when his 1960 Corvair collided with a Plymouth on a two-lane road. His stepfather was a well-known trial lawyer. They alleged that the young man's death was caused by the defective rear suspension in the Corvair. The judge, after listening to testimony from expert witnesses with engineering and racing backgrounds, ruled in GM's favor. He tossed out of court many of the plaintiffs' contentions regarding the Corvair. At that point, it was game over for Corvair plaintiffs. psharjinian: That GM modified it should be evidence that it wasn’t perhaps optimally designed. No, because then every improvement to a product would be taken as proof that the original was faulty. This would discourage innovation. Plus, your original contention was that GM only made the modifications in reponse to pressure from Nader. Given product development timelines, and the appearance of Mr. Nader's book, this is not so. psharjinian: Again, I find it very hard to understand why we’re trying to defend GM against Ralph Nader, other than what sounds like sour grapes from people who think they know better. Because, as should be apparent from these posts, I've taken the time to do more than read Unsafe at Any Speed, and therefore know the all of the facts. Sorry, as in the discussions over global warming and health care, you need to understand that just because someone has reached a different conclusion than you have doesn't mean that they are corrupt, or under the spell of big business, the Republican Party, etc. psharjinian: No, but there’s a hell of a burden of proof on them, isn’t there? This very site has called the objectivity of automotive journalism into question several times and found it lacking, and this is in an era where it’s pathetically easy to validate a lack of objectivity. First, you are making the accusations against Mr. Ludvigsen and Mr. Davis, so the burden of proof is on YOU. Second, you are assuming that every journalist who disagrees with Nader (and you) is automatically tainted by some outside force, while his motives are only pure. Sorry, but there are many of us who have looked at this case and have drawn very different conclusions based on the evidence, not a free dinner from GM. psharjinian: When Nader was at his zenith, the media was far less transparent. The media was actually quite enamored with him in the 1960s. If anything, he was something of a Golden Boy, especially after it was discovered that GM had been dumb enough to hire that private investigator. psharjinian: Do you seriously think that the editors of Car And Driver don’t have just a little bit of bias? Either because they have a responsibility to their advertisers, or because a non-engineer, non-industry persion did the job that they, as engineers and/or industry insiders, should be doing? The problem with your argument is that Mr. Ludvigsen didn't quote Patrick Bedard or David E. Davis, Jr., in his article. He drew his arguments from the COURT CASES and testimony of ENGINEERS and RACERS in the trial. So any charges of "bias" in his article are nonsense. And I'm waiting for an explanation of why Consumer Reports had nice things to say about the original Corvair, when it didn't accept advertising dollars, or test cars on loan from the manufacturers. It blows a hole in your theory that the Corvair was a deathtrap, and that the only way the car could get a favorable review was for GM to bribe or threaten the publication. psharjinian: You’re trying to make this black-and-white and it isn’t. Automakers aren’t going to build outright deathtraps, but they’re also not going to put in a dime they can’t absolutely justify. It’s always a balance. Nader’s work did put an emphasis on safety that flat-out wasn’t there before. No, you are the one trying to make this black-and--white by saying that "that automakers were not going to make safer cars unless they had absolutely no other choice." Which is wrong, based on the improving fatality statistics prior to 1967 and Ford's attempt to market safety equipment in 1956. psharjinian: Wrong. The man makes an assload of money from stock ownership, notably from Cisco Systems. He donates just about all of it. This is all public information, and refutations usually come down to “well, I don’t believe it”. Sorry, but you are wrong. How did he buy the stock in the first place? He needed a source of income to buy it. It didn't just fall into his lap, like manna from heaven. They aren't giving away shares in Cisco or other companies at the Goodwill store. psharjinian: If I had the full weight of both sides of the American political spectrum bearing down on me, I’d be a noisy, annoying prick, too. You are confusing the Nader of 1965 with the Nader of 2008. He didn't have the "full weight of both sides of the American political spectrum bearing down on him" in 1965. If anything, he was a liberal darling at that time. Even during the 1995 debate over the elimination of the national 65 mph speed limit, his hysterical predictions of Automotive Armageddon were accepted by the media pretty much without question. He didn't tick off liberals until the 2000 election.

  • Potemkin Potemkin on Dec 23, 2008

    I never fail to be amazed at the naivete of some people. To say that the media whose paycheques depend on advertising from automotive sources does not have an agenda to avoid making those sources look bad is the height of absudity. The partisanship of print, radio and TV media is the reason they are waneing as souces of unbiased information and blogs like this one are becoming trusted sources. The fact that you can't find a paper trail leading from our news sources and politicians to big industry does not mean that it does not exist it simply means they did a good job of hiding it. In the 90s headquarters decreed that accepting tickets to sporting events or free lunches or vacations from vendors we dealt with was forbidden. All that happened was vendors replaced our names with ficticious names on the expense slips. As has been shown by the mismanagement of GM, the only thing big companies care about is the immediate not the long term. So it is with the auto industry that continues to use a part even when they know it's bad, hoping that the subsequent law suits won't cost as much as redesigning the part.

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