Yonkers, New York – Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, is calling for changes to strengthen the U.S. car safety net that would help identify infrequent problems that are difficult to diagnose and hard to catch, but which could have deadly consequences.

Consumers Union (CU) said that car problems reported to dealers, automakers and government agencies each day create a level of “noise” that can make it difficult to identify real trends and rare problems, especially since many complaints are about isolated incidents that may be due to driver error, vehicle abuse, lack of maintenance, or variability on the assembly line. The key is to identify when a series of problems points to a trend, and to a real and possibly lethal defect in a part or design, as early as possible.

“Every generation of safety innovation that Consumers Union has promoted, from seatbelts to airbags to electronic stability control, has required the coordinated commitment of carmakers, the government and consumers,” said Jim Guest, president of CU. “Our nation’s drivers, passengers and consumers at large deserve an even stronger car safety net.”

The company said that improvements made to catch and fix these issues should benefit the entire auto safety system, but must be made without losing sight of widespread and arguably more critical safety challenges, such as drunk driving, safety belt misuse and distracted driving, that are associated with significantly more deaths.

Among the actions CU would like to see implemented are:

Improved public access to safety information. Public access to Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) information about consumer complaints and issues-related manufacturer data should be dramatically improved. Consumers should not have to visit multiple sites to see parts of the information; the information should be visible via a single site, with intuitive tools that allow users to easily find information for particular models and compare vehicle safety records. CU also recommends that NHTSA initiate a program to raise public awareness and encourage more drivers to participate in data gathering.

Mandate specific safety changes in new cars. NHTSA should promulgate safety regulations to prevent sudden unintended acceleration in all automobiles. Cars should be required to be able to stop within a reasonable distance, even if the throttle is wide open; have simple, standard controls that turn off the engine in an emergency; have intuitive, clearly-labelled transmission shifters in all new cars; and require a minimum distance between the throttle pedal and the floor.

Remove NHTSA’s cap on civil penalties. NHTSA has the authority to seek civil penalties from automakers and suppliers for a variety of violations, but only to a maximum of US$16.4 million in civil penalties. CU said that a large, multi-billion-dollar manufacturer may consider this just the “cost of doing business,” and recommends removing the cap to act as a deterrent for future violations of the law.

Give NHTSA more resources. Motor vehicle crashes account for 99 per cent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries, but NHTSA’s budget is currently just over one per cent of the overall Department of Transportation budget.

Manufacturers should make more safety features standard. Advanced safety features, including electronic stability control and curtain airbags, should be standard even in low-budget cars. CU is also calling on manufacturers to end the practice of packaging safety options with luxurious but non-essential amenities such as navigation systems or heated seats.

Manufacturers must share more safety-related information. CU believes consumer complaint numbers collected by manufacturers and reported via the Early Warning Reports system should be made public. It is also calling on manufacturers to make information from black box recording devices more immediately accessible to government investigators.

Consumers should share information about safety issues. CU encourages consumers to fix issues and report them, by submitting complaints to NHTSA. This can be done at the consumer complaints database at NHTSA.

Consumers should act on recall information. According to NHTSA, the average consumer response to vehicle recalls is 74.1 per cent. Owners who have been notified of a recall could do more to take care of fixes.

The company said that going forward, its Consumer Reports will broaden the scope of safety information on its Web site in as many areas as is practical, beginning with recall information. Beginning with the online version of its upcoming annual questionnaire in April, CU will make additional efforts to gather information about subscribers’ experiences with recalls, and plans to analyze and publish the findings for consumers on its Web site as soon as possible after the survey is complete.

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