Honda Motor Co. wants regulators to make U.S. motorists comply with carmakers’ recall notices.
Amid reports of people killed because they didn’t know their cars had a defect, an executive with the Japan-based carmaker urged state and federal regulators to consider new methods, such as withholding vehicle registration renewals.
“Honda is going to use any innovative tools to find customers and get these recalls done,” Rick Schostek, a Honda North America executive vice president, told lawmakers at a Senate transportation committee hearing. “But there could be some support on the state level.”
About one of every seven vehicles on U.S. roads, or 37 million cars and trucks, has an unfixed recall, according to CarFax, which maintains a vehicle-history database.
Lawmakers held the hearing to better understand why it’s taking so long to repair almost 8 million vehicles with Takata Corp. air bags that have been linked to as many as six deaths worldwide. Some of the U.S. deaths have been in vehicles recalled but not yet repaired, according to the top-ranking official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“They never told me about the recall,” Stephanie Erdman, who was gouged in the eye by shrapnel when an air bag in her Honda Civic exploded in a low-speed crash in 2013, told senators. “They never performed the recall repair on my vehicle. And they never warned me about what might happen if my air bag deployed.”
Erdman said she had her Civic serviced at a Honda dealer three times between the February 2010 recall and the 2013 crash and was never told about the defect. She’s since found out that a mailed Honda recall notice was returned as undeliverable, and the automaker didn’t try to reach her in another way.
Many U.S. states require a tailpipe emissions test before a vehicle can be registered, and certain states decline renewals until outstanding emissions recall repairs have been completed, Schostek said. States could add a similar requirement when defects tied to a recall are unfixed, if parts are available, before completing the registration, he said.
Also, dealerships and independent repair shops could be required to notify owners if there was an unfixed recall on their vehicle before returning it after an unrelated repair, the Honda executive suggested.
“It’s a good idea,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based research group. “California won’t give you a registration if you have an emissions recall. Why not a safety recall?”
Chrysler Group would also support such a change, Eric Mayne, a spokesman for the unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, said in an e-mailed statement.
In 2012, Chrysler began e-mailing, phoning and sending recall notices to vehicle owners to help boost repair rates. The average response after 18 months has risen to 80 percent from 70 percent before the notifications, Mayne said.
General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Nissan Motor Co. “is generally supportive of all ideas to improve completion rates on safety recalls,” spokesman Steve Yaeger said in an e-mail. Though he added it’s too early to comment on what was specifically proposed at the hearing.
Takata and at least 10 automakers including Honda, Toyota and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG are under pressure from Congress and regulators to expand and accelerate the recall of vehicles with faulty air bag inflators that when exposed to consistently high humidity can explode.
Data from the automakers released to NHTSA show that only about 6 percent of vehicles recalled with the defect have been repaired.
Honda has said it’s verified three deaths and 45 injuries related to Takata air bags and is studying two more. Senators today suggested a death in 2003 in Arizona may be tied to the flaw, raising total fatalities to six.
Automakers are required to notify NHTSA of a defect within five days of detection and move toward a recall to fix it, or face a $35 million fine and possible criminal charges. Vehicle owners aren’t required to get those cars and trucks fixed.
In a highly publicized case that Honda is still evaluating to determine if it’s linked to the defect, Hien Tran, 51, died Oct. 2 after debris from the deployment of the air bag in her 2001 Honda Accord caused gashes on her throat that police initially thought were signs of a murder. The recall notice for her vehicle arrived after she died, a lawyer for her family said. The Tran family sued Honda and Takata this week.
NHTSA’s website shows that there were five different air bag recalls from 2008 through June of this year that included the 2001 Accord, and a Carfax report shows Tran’s vehicle registration changed at least seven times in that period.
Owners can already find out the recall history of their vehicles at NHTSA’s website and on many automaker websites. The Carfax data is also free on recalls, said spokesman Chris Basso.
“An unfixed recall is not only a risk to the driver and the passenger but also to other people on the road,” he said. “People need to know they have a defect.”
NHTSA is expanding consumer outreach with an online vehicle identification number lookup tool, a recall alert smartphone application, and direct mailings in red envelopes, the agency’s deputy administrator, David Friedman, said at the hearing.
So far this year, total recalls have exceeded 53.8 million vehicles — more than double last year’s 22 million — according to government data. In a 2011 study of the recall system, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that after 18 months, the completion rate was about 65 percent. That study found Germany can revoke registration of vehicles with an outstanding safety recall.
Increasing the effectiveness of recalls would come at a cost to the automaker because they would have to pay for more repairs, said Neil Steinkamp, a managing director at Stout Risius Ross Inc. who studies warranty and recall issues.
“It would be a big step, certainly,” Steinkamp said. “Right now the focus is on strong encouragement and softer policing power. This would certainly go a step further.”