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Why Do Defective Vehicles Stay on the Road So Long?

Several recent auto recalls highlight that many defective vehicles stay on the road far longer than they should, potentially putting lives in danger.

In the case of General Motors, faulty ignition switches caused accidents for nearly eleven years before the carmaker initiated a recall. Similarly, by the time Chrysler Group LLC announced its recall of several Jeep models last year due to problems with the fuel tank placement, more than 51 people had died in fiery rear-end crashes.

In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal explored how these delays occur , placing the blame on both regulators and auto manufacturers. The newspaper analyzed 279 vehicle recalls since 2000 that were prompted by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation. In more than 30 percent of the cases, it took at least 12 months to complete the investigation, recall the vehicles, and initiate the repairs. In about 10 percent of the cases, it took at least two years.

The Wall Street Journal’s findings are alarming, particularly given that many of the recalled vehicles posed significant risks. They were tied to 4,500 crashes or fires, approximately 1,600 injuries, and 20 deaths.

As we have previously discussed on this San Diego Injury Blog, many auto recalls are voluntarily initiated by car makers, while others are the result of an NHTSA investigation. As the article highlights, both are prone to problems and delays.

When carmakers initiate a recall, they are not required to complete repairs within any specified timeline, and they can often take months. According to The Wall Street Journal, Chrysler will not be able to fix all of the recalled Jeeps until March of 2015. Since the recall was announced, four more people have allegedly died in accidents linked to the defective fuel tanks.

The government does not always do better. While the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation must complete its preliminary evaluation within four months and an engineering analysis within one year, it often misses its deadlines. The agency at least failed to meet one of those targets in 72 percent of the recalls examined by the newspaper.

Recalls can also be delayed when auto manufacturers fail to cooperate with the investigation or take legal action to prevent the recall. Under current laws, the NHTSA can’t force automakers to halt sales while a recall order is being challenged. While legislation is currently being considered to give the NHTSA greater authority, its passage is uncertain.