February 26, 2013
Federal auto safety regulators are counting what used to be considered multiple recalls as one, undercutting their boast that defect investigations are leading to record recalls.
Asked about a big decline in recent public investigations, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief David Strickland told USA TODAY last week that the agency in 2012 got the second-largest number of recalls per investigation in its history.
But a new analysis by the Center for Auto Safety shows the two years NHTSA had the largest and second-largest number of recalls per investigation—2012 and 2008—might not have been record years under the old method of accounting.
In 2008, NHTSA's defect probes led to a record 191 recalls, its data show. But 126 were due to wheelchair lifts made by a single company.
In 2012, 19 of NHTSA's 134 investigation-influenced vehicle recalls were for one company's sunroofs.
In the past decade, NHTSA changed how it counts recalls to list each separate defect notification to the agency as a separate recall, the agency said in a statement Monday.
Unlike NHTSA's public probes into whether defects exist, the probes that led to these recalls determine if a known defect or recall affects other manufacturers and should lead to more recalls, NHTSA said.
"All of these agency actions help to address safety risks and led to more than 9 million vehicles being recalled last year," the statement says.
USA TODAY reported Friday that NHTSA opened far fewer public investigations in the past three years. Thanks to better data and pre-screening before opening probes, NHTSA is able to "influence more recalls," Strickland said.
NHTSA settled a case last month brought by safety advocate Sean Kane about what he calls a secret investigation into the Evenflo Discovery child seat before a 2008 recall.
"Recall inflation makes it look like they are doing more investigations that lead to (recalls) than they really are," says Kane. "Is this to make up for the way they are now doing secret investigations?"
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