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Let Consumers Help Repair the Auto Industry | Commentary

One hundred and seventeen — that is the most recent death toll figure from General Motors Co.’s faulty ignition switches. The figure represents a disturbing increase from GM’s original estimate of 13 deaths.

This news came out the same week senators held a hearing on an internal audit of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and as the troubled agency was preparing for its own hearing to examine 20 separate recalls. What are we, as family members of safety recall victims and consumers, to do as these hearings and debates continue to play out with even more widespread safety recall issues still to be addressed?

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind made a recent visit to Detroit to meet with the leadership of Ford, GM and Chrysler to address the industry’s safety culture. The NHTSA has no shortage of input from industry on safety recall issues. Unfortunately, investigations and recalls are done without similar access and input from consumers and victims. The people most directly affected by these decisions deserve to be an equal part of the process.

On June 24, I sent a letter to Rosekind requesting that NHTSA create a consumer advisory review board to incorporate the concerns of consumer advocates, recall victims and their family members, like myself. After all, it is the lives of the millions of the driving public that the agency is responsible for protecting and who are most directly impacted by regulatory decisions that develop — not just the few elite CEOs and other auto industry executives.

In the wake of last year’s record-breaking recalls, NHTSA held a pubic hearing on July 2 to examine Fiat Chrysler’s 20 separate recalls, which covered more than 10 million vehicles. Furthermore, the internal audit by the Transportation Department found that problems within the agency “deter N.H.T.S.A. from successfully meeting the mandate to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial.” It is clear something is not working. Consider some of the problems still to be addressed.

The almost two decades-long failure of Chrysler to address Jeep’s fuel tank problem that has killed at least 76 people and has a repair rate as low as 20 percent should cause extreme concern. Seventy-six deaths and 38 injuries (and counting) tragically occurred during the 19 years that passed between the first complaint with fuel tanks and the eventual recall of 5.1 million vehicles.

There are also ongoing challenges of poor or fraudulent repair rates. On April 10, GM told the media it had completed 70 percent of recall repairs (the industry average at 18 months is 75 percent), however an April GM financial report showed that only approximately 63 percent of the 2.6 million vehicles initially subject to recall had been repaired. Why is the public hearing something different than investors and NHTSA?

NHTSA has also failed to prevent the sale of recalled vehicles. In fact, the agency praised GM for “making systemic changes in its computer inventory systems” to prevent the sale of unrepaired recalled vehicles, a step GM finally took in April of 2015. Unfortunately, national news reports have revealed their unrepaired recalled cars are being sold routinely across the country. Why have industry and the NHTSA been so slow to enforce the law or implement solutions?

NHTSA must be more engaged with the human side of regulatory policy and enforcement (or lack of), and consumers and victims must play a greater role in developing a better consumer protection process. There is simply no time to waste in correcting the oversight, communications gaps, and other failures that plague the existing recall system. I believe consumers and advocates, and victims and their families can help, if you will let us.

Laura Christian is a consumer advocate on transportation safety issues whose 16-year-old daughter died due to a defective Chevrolet Cobalt ignition switch.

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