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Transcript: Thursday, September 30, 2004, 11 a.m. ET

Motor Vehicle Recalls

Kathleen DeMeter
Director, Office of Defects Investigations - NHTSA
Thursday, September 30, 2004; 11:00 AM

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. This is accomplished by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA also investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps to reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of safety belts, child safety seats and air bags, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics.

This discussion was about motor vehicle recalls.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Kathleen DeMeter: No one likes dealing with motor vehicle problems, but those that have safety consequences can have catastrophic effects on our lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the responsibility for identifying those vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment that contain safety-related defects and for ensuring that they are recalled. These recalls help make the nation's highways safer for all of us.

Consumers can help us by reporting any problems with their vehicles, tires or child restraints. We review each and every complaint and look for safety problems that are common to a group of vehicles, tires or child restraints. We open investigations where there appeaer to be safety-related defects and we ensure that manufacturers recall and remedy defective products.

I hope that I can answer your questions about this sometimes misunderstood process.


Fairfax City, Va.: Is there a time limit or an ownership rule on recalls? Say I buy a used car and find out through your database that there was a recall 5 years ago to fix a potentially dangerous problem. But the car was never taken in for the repair. Can I still take it to a dealer now to be fixed? Or am I out of luck?

Kathleen DeMeter: There is no time limit or ownership requirement on getting recall work done. If you buy a used car, you may visit safercar.gov to search for any recalls, past or present, or other safety issues with the particular make, model, and model year of the vehicle. If you find that there has been a recall, you should check with the manufacturer's dealer to find out if the work has been done. If not, you are entitled to have the remedy performed.


Monterey, Calif.: Does the NHTSA have jurisdiction over citizen related vehicle safety issues such as cell phone use while driving or tailgating?

If so, would you please give an outline of what the process would be to create and deploy a national awareness campaign about the dangers of these practices.

Thank you.

Kathleen DeMeter: We do research on distractions, including cell phones, but have no regulatory jurisdiction in those areas.


Oxon Hill, Md.: What kinds of defects will NHTSA investigate?

Kathleen DeMeter: NHTSA investigates defects related to safety. Examples of vehicle safety defects we investigate are steering, fuel leaks, windshield wiper, electrical defects that may start a fire to name a few. We also investigate safety defects on tires, child safety seats and other motor vehicle equipment such as trailer hitches, luggage racks, and appliance items in a recreational vehicle.

We do not investigate issues unrelated to safety such as poorly operating radios or air-conditioners, issues related to ordinary wear items (brakes, batteries and tire wear) that are subject to routine replacement, paint quality and excessive oil consumption.


Washington, D.C.: So many people are killed or injured in car accidents every year. It would seem to me that it would be so much cheaper (and better) to make sure that drivers actually know how to control a car and avoid the crash, rather than rely on technology to save lives after the crash happens.

Why doesn't NHTSA do more in this area?

Kathleen DeMeter: NHTSA is actively involved in this area but for today's discussion we are focusing on safety-related defects.


Clinton, Maryland: I have an SUV that was recalled and I brought it back to the dealer for repairs. Now I'm wondering if the dealer really did the repairs? How would I know for sure?

Kathleen DeMeter: This would depend on the nature of the recall remedy. Obviously any repair that involved the replacement of parts that are plainly visible could be inspected by the naked eye (for example replacement of a tire, wheel or a seat belt). Other remedies may not be visible (for example reprogramming of a computer or replacement of internal parts for your transmission) and in that case you must rely on the integrity of the dealer. You can always request to see any defective parts removed from your vehicle. Also you can bring your vehicle to a second dealer and have that dealer check your VIN to see if the manufacture's database has a record showing completion of the recall work for your vehicle. If you suspect fraud or any recall has not been performed properly you should notify NHTSA by filing s complaint through its web site or AutoSafety Hotline (888-Dash-2-DOT) and the vehicle's manufacturer.


McLean, Va.: I was in a crash last winter and the air bag did not go off. I wasn't hurt but the airbag didn't inflate. Is this something that should investigated? Should I fill out a complaint form?

Kathleen DeMeter: Yes, you should fill out a complaint form every time you experience an event that might be safety-related. ODI reviews every consumer complaint, looking for similar problems. If a trend is identified, an investigation may be opened.

With regard to the non-deployment of air bags, each manufacturer designs its vehicles so the air bags will deploy only if the severity of a crash exceeds a certain threshold. Most manufacturers design their air bags to deploy when the crash severity is somewhere above 8 mph, depending on the make and model.

A number of factors, other than crash severity, also can affect whether an air bag will deploy in a given crash; e.g., the angle of impact, the speed of the other vehicle, and the amount of force absorbed by the other vehicle or object that is impacted.

In lower speed crashes, where the air bag does not deploy, occupant protection is provided by the design of the interior surfaces in the vehicle, as well as by safety belts.


Shenzhen, China: Speaking of motor vehicle recalls, do you think this practice should be applied to those car-makers now operating in China?

Kathleen DeMeter: If Chinese manufactured vehicles are imported into the U.S., those vehicles are subject to U.S. motor vehicle safety standards and can be recalled.


Pennsylvania: Hi - I was involved in a car accident yesterday (head-on collision at about 20-25 mph) in which my airbag did not deploy. I'm wondering if this was a malfunction in the airbag, or whether the systems are so well-engineered now that the car could "tell" that my seat belt was enough to prevent me from serious injury. (Other than being really sore, I'm not injured.) Will the computer system in the car be able to tell the mechanics whether there was a malfunction or not? And if there was one, what's the next step?


Kathleen DeMeter: As noted in my answer to McLean, Virginia, air bags are not required to deploy in all circumstances. To find out whether your air bag performed properly, your dealer can check the vehicle's computer.


New York, New York: Ms. DeMeter:

I have a 2003 Nissan Murano. As reported in a recent issue of Consumer Reports, there is a serious problem with the steering in this vehicle. At low engine and vehicle speed, the power steering for the vehicle will cut out - especially during low speed accident avoidance maneuvers such as switching lanes rapidly to avoid something in the road. I have noticed this exact same problem in my car as have others on the Nissan Murano car owner's page. Nissan has even fixed this problem for the new Murano's in 05 - but they WON'T fix it in older models (2003 and 2004 I think). Can NHTSA force them to do something BEFORE someone gets hurt?

Kathleen DeMeter: We have other, similar complaints regarding the Murano. We have not made a decision whether to open an investigation but we are monitoring the situation closely.

As in all cases, the consumer is the most important source of information to the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) in identifying safety-related defects. Please do not hesitate to register a complaint with us regarding your Nissan.

Go to our web site at safercar.gov and complete the Vehicle Owners Questionnaire or call the DOT Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236. You can also submit information through the mail by sending your letter to:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Office of Defects Investigation
400 7th St., SW, NVS-211
Washington, DC 20590


Alexandria, Va.: What is being done about the much talked about fires in the CRVs after oil changes?

Kathleen DeMeter: We recently reopened a defect investigation into the CRV oil filter problem. Honda has issued a communication to dealers regarding the proper replacement of CRV oil filters. Essentially, a rubber o-ring is getting stuck to the engine, which prevents the new filter from sealing properly. When the oil leaks out, it could drip on the exhaust system and cause a fire.


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