Federal auto safety regulators are counting what used to be considered multiple recalls as one, undercutting their boast that defect investigations are leading to record numbers of recalls.
When asked about a big decline in recent public investigations, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland told USA TODAY last week that the agency in 2012 got the second-largest number of recalls per investigation in its history.
But a new analysis by the Center for Auto Safety shows the two years NHTSA had the largest and second-largest number of recalls per investigation 2012 and 2008 – would not have been record years under the old method of accounting.
In 2008, NHTSA’s defect investigations led to a record 191 recalls, according to agency data. But the same year, the Center for Auto Safety’s Clarence Ditlow says 126 recalls were due to wheelchair lifts made by a single company.
In 2012, 19 of NHTSA’s 134 investigation-influenced vehicle recalls were for sunroofs made by a single company.
In the past decade, NHTSA changed how it counts recalls to list each separate defect notification to the agency as a separate recall, the agency said in a statement to USA TODAY on Monday.
Unlike NHTSA’s public investigations into whether defects exist, the kind of probe that led to these recalls determine whether a known defect or recall affects other manufacturers and should lead to more recalls, NHTSA said.
“All of these agency actions help to address safety risks and led to more than 9 million vehicles being recalled last year,” according to the statement.
USA TODAY reported Friday that NHTSA opened far fewer public investigations in the past three years than in most of the previous 25 years. Strickland said the agency’s screening activities have evolved over the years.
“The great thing about better analytic tools and more data,” Strickland said, is that the agency can “influence more recalls.”
NHTSA settled a case last month brought by Sean Kane of advocacy group Safety Research & Strategies about what he calls a secret investigation into the Evenflo Discovery child seat before a 2008 recall.
The agency agreed to pay more than $14,000 in Kane’s attorney’s fees, and Kane got documents showing NHTSA had been quietly doing testing of the seat and talking with the company, which would have been part of a public investigation.
“Recall inflation makes it look like they are doing more investigations that lead to (recalls) than they really are,” says Kane. “Is this to make up for the way they are now doing secret investigations?”
Strickland says it would “undercut the value of the bully pulpit” if the agency went public with information before it had evidence to suggest something poses an “unreasonable risk” to safety. And behind the scenes talks with manufacturers are not negotiations, he says.
Consumers with a complaint about their vehicle can call NHTSA’s hotline at 888-327-4236. Those who want to file a complaint or check public investigations or recalls, can go to SaferCar.gov. A mobile app is in the works, says NHTSA.