By Gabe Nelson, Crain News Service
WASHINGTON (July 15, 2013) — Despite the government's truce with Chrysler Group L.L.C. over the safety of aged Jeep vehicles, the nation's top auto safety regulator said his agency will keep taking an expansive view of what justifies a safety recall.
To avoid recalls, auto makers must stay "within the zone of reasonable risk," David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told Automotive News last week.
That means not only adhering to federal safety standards at the time vehicles are built but also keeping up with the state of the art in design and technology among competitors.
Mr. Strickland's remarks shed light on a key point of contention in the brief standoff between NHTSA and Chrysler last month after the agency ordered a recall of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Liberty SUVs — 2.7 million vehicles in all.
Mr. Strickland, who became NHTSA administrator in 2010 amid the Toyota sudden-acceleration crisis, said the process for identifying and investigating defects hasn't changed. But he reaffirmed the agency's intent to scrutinize vehicle data continually for patterns that might point to risks that merit a recall.
"It really is based on the notion of unreasonable risk. And that is an evolving notion," Mr. Strickland said. The agency, he added, is obligated to reassess a potential risk "if state of the art moves all the peers in one direction, and it appears that there is another part of the fleet that has not made those same moves or improvements."
Compliance isn't enough
The fluid standard, in a rapidly innovating auto industry, may be one explanation for the sharp rise in vehicle recalls in recent years. Auto makers initiated 664 recalls in 2012 — up from 506 in 2002 and 207 in 1992 — and of the 664 recalls last year, 507 were initiated without input from NHTSA.