Federal Agency Pressure Is On
Why, then, are there so many recalls?
One key ingredient is stepped-up government pressure on automakers to order recalls. Congress and the media have been lambasting NHTSA for missing signs that could have resulted in a much earlier recall of, for instance, the GM vehicles with faulty ignition switches. As a result, the agency has become even more vigilant than in the past, acting much more quickly when defects are reported.
But NHTSA has only about 600 employees who, among other duties, are expected help ensure the safety of more than 260 individual car models and more than 260 million registered vehicles in the U.S. That compares to around 50,000 people employed by the Federal Aviation Administration who monitor about 8 million aircraft takeoffs and landings per year.
In addition to being understaffed, NHTSA has limited fining authority. The maximum fine now allowed is $35 million per incident, which is not a huge amount for major car companies. The agency has asked Congress to increase that to $300 million and give it additional enforcement power it now lacks, such as authority to order an immediate recall when it determines that public safety is at stake. Currently, that process can take months of negotiations with the affected automaker. If NHTSA gets that authority, expect it to be more aggressive in ordering recalls over the objections of carmakers, something that rarely happens now.
But even without increased regulatory authority for NHTSA, it appears that some positive change is taking place.
Ever since the Justice Department fined Toyota $1.2 billion in 2014 for misleading the public about vehicles suspected of unintended acceleration, and the adverse effects of the Takata airbag inflator and GM ignition switch recalls, there's been a sea change in how the industry looks at defects. Automakers have taken note of these cases and begun to do a better job of self-policing in order to avoid fines and bad publicity. As a result, manufacturer-initiated recalls have risen considerably in recent years.
In addition, a number of consumer advocacy groups around the world have increased their efforts to both monitor patterns of automotive defects and put pressure on automakers and government regulatory agencies to take action when problems are uncovered. These groups have also often been critical of agreements and settlements between manufacturers and regulators and weighed in on penalties that have been assessed to increase public awareness of how recall issues are being resolved.