WASHINGTON (March 18, 2003) — Federal safety regulators will put the “recall” label on all “safety improvement campaigns” by auto makers.
The internal change at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) affects those safety-related repairs that car companies perform on vehicles but may not meet the technical, legal definition of “safety recall.”
The change, according to NHTSA, was made to protect motorists who miss notifications of safety improvement campaigns — either because they overlook factory mailings or because they acquire or may acquire affected vehicles after the campaigns have been conducted.
For example, if someone contacts NHTSA and asks if a vehicle has been subject to any safety recalls, the answer will include official recalls and any of the car maker's safety improvement campaigns.
Senior NHTSA officials, who would not be named, say the change also should mean that repairs will occur more quickly and that less time will be wasted in discussions between the agency and auto makers over whether certain repairs fit the legal definition of a recall. “It wasn't intended to be a negotiated thing between us and the manufacturers,” one official said.
The official suggested car makers increasingly have been trying to avoid labeling their repairs as recalls, which tend to generate negative publicity.
The trend dates from NHTSA's 1995 decision to allow the former Chrysler Corp. to replace about 4 million minivan hatch latches through an improvement campaign instead of a recall.
A high-ranking industry executive, who also asked not to be named, said he's concerned about the new practice at NHTSA but believes there may be little auto makers can do about it.
He warned that the change will dilute the significance of safety recalls in consumer minds by mixing them with a variety of other industry efforts to satisfy customers.