Published — June 16, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

NHTSA doesn’t analyze its recall data to ID worst car manufacturers, GAO says


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t analyze its own data to determine which auto manufacturers are best at recalling cars with safety flaws, a new report found.

Car recalls became big news in 2010, when Toyota recalled millions of cars with a faulty—and potentially deadly—accelerator pedal and other flaws. NHTSA fined Toyota more than $30 million for not notifying the agency about defects in a timely fashion.

While recalls have had a 70 percent success rate overall, according to NHTSA, the Government Accountability Office found tremendous variation by year and manufacturer. In 2004, one manufacturer failed to successfully recall three out of four of its cars determined to have a safety risk.

The GAO also found significant variation among the success rates by component, with faulty air bags and cruise control systems among the components least likely to be fixed.

Consumers who buy cars from used-car dealerships might be at greater risk of buying a defective car, since NHTSA can’t force used-car dealers to notify buyers of risks and those dealers often don’t get manufacturer notices of recalled cars. The report suggests that NHTSA continue lobbying Congress to broaden the agency’s authority to include used-car dealerships.

The report suggests that creating a recall database organized by vehicle identification number (VIN) could make it easier for both consumers and used-car dealers to determine whether cars are in need of repair.

That database is one of several GAO suggestions for improving NHTSA’s website and increasing awareness of its offerings.

Another suggestion is to improve recall notification letters by indicating, in large type, that the information is urgent and including the vehicle identification number to make clear to recipients that the recall includes their particular vehicle. Drawing on focus-group findings, the report also suggests that NHTSA should encourage manufacturers to contact affected car owners by telephone or e-mail, in addition to sending notification letters.

FAST FACT: Nearly 15 million cars were recalled in 2010, a record number due in large part to the Toyota recall.

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