July 12, 2007

Safety advocates call on Congress to end secrecy on vehicle safety data

Rehoboth, Massachusetts – Safety advocates and an attorney representing families of crash victims have asked members of Congress to make automotive defect information public, and to close a loophole in the regulations regarding importers’ ability to recall defective products. The action stems from allegedly defective Chinese-made light truck tires sold in the U.S.

Last month, Foreign Tire Sales (FTS) of Union, New Jersey appealed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for help in recalling an estimated 450,000 light truck tires after the company allegedly learned that the manufacturer, the Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Company, had left a critical component out of the tire. The tires, sold under the names Westlake, Telluride, Compass and YKS, were implicated in the August 2006 deaths of two men, and injuries to a third, in a rollover crash. The families of the men sued FTS and Hangzhou Zhongce in May, sparking the recall.

FTS reported to NHTSA that it suspected something was wrong with the tires as early as October 2005, and said it lacked the financial resources to collect, dispose of and replace the allegedly defective tires. After NHTSA ordered it to conduct a recall, FTS announced a consumer-remedy plan.

Safety Research & Strategies, a vehicle safety-consulting firm, along with a product safety attorney, have written to members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, to raise concerns about the continued secrecy of NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting data, which is required under a provision of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act.

The TREAD Act was passed in October 2000, in response to the controversy over the safety of Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone Wilderness/ATX tires. Since 2003, auto, tire and other equipment manufacturers have been required to submit certain types of data-warranty claims, production numbers, property damage claims, injury-causing and fatal incidents, consumer complaints and field reports as part of an early warning system to alert regulators to defects. The rules have been contentious, and manufacturers and safety advocates have fought in federal court over the data’s accessibility.

The recall also brings to light a gap in the regulations, which allows an importer to sell an automotive component in the U.S. without having the financial capability to launch a recall if needed. According to NHTSA, FTS is not the first importer to discover a major defect, and then claim that a recall would bankrupt the company.

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