Consumer groups press appeals court over regional auto recalls |

Consumer groups press appeals court over regional auto recalls

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court was asked Friday to throw out a rule that allows the government’s highway safety agency to limit some vehicle recalls by region.Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety challenged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s policy that allows automakers to conduct recalls involving defects related to regional conditions such as snow or heat.Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, an attorney for the groups, said a 1998 letter that NHTSA sent to manufacturers clarifying its policies should be considered a rule change requiring public comment. She said it violated a federal law requiring that all owners be notified of vehicle recalls regardless of where they live or where the vehicle is registered.”It reads like a regulation and it is a de facto regulation,” she said. “Automakers have been adhering to it.”But Jane Lyons, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the letter does not “provide any real binding criteria” forcing manufacturers to follow the recommendations. She said regional recalls involve only about 1 percent of all recalls and regional recalls have been used since the mid-1980s.Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked the groups if “common sense” showed ice conditions were common to all parts of the United States and certain recalls might not apply to parts of the country.Robin-Vergeer said the policy was arbitrary, noting a regional recall involving corrosion damage could involve vehicles registered in Maryland and Washington, D.C., but not in Virginia.About 250,000 Virginia residents commute to Maryland and D.C. every day and would not know about the recall or receive the benefit of having the defect repaired for free, she said.”You have the problem that the vehicles move,” Robin-Vergeer said.A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit questioned the significance of the letter and the role of its author, the agency’s associate administrator. The judges tried to learn if the letter represented a final policy rule or if it offered automakers general guidance.”It sounds like a policy statement,” said Judge Harry Edwards.Lyons said one could not look at the 1998 letter and predict how the agency would proceed in individual cases. The government contends that NHTSA uses its technical expertise, experience and judgment in each particular case.In September 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the group’s lawsuit, leading to the appeal.The lower court said the letter was not a rule change but simply gave guidelines for regional recalls. The court also said that regional recalls do not violate the Motor Vehicle Safety Act because the act does not say that recalls must be nationwide.Wisconsin Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager urged the Department of Transportation to make recalls national in a November letter. She was responding to a regional recall by General Motors Corp. in August that included bordering states Illinois and Michigan but excluded Wisconsin.”Unfortunately, these regional recalls exclude many defective vehicles that should otherwise be eligible for recall repairs,” Lautenschlager wrote.—On the Net:National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Citizen, for Auto Safety,

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