On Jan. 18, Carlos Solis IV died in a crash of his 2002 Honda Accord. Metal from the driver's side airbag struck him in the neck, according to a police report cited in a lawsuit filed by Solis' family. When Solis bought the vehicle in April 2014 at a used-car dealership near Houston, neither Honda nor the dealer notified him that it had been recalled in 2011 for suspect Takata airbag inflators. Solis' car was again recalled last June, but when he crashed last month, Honda still hadn't mailed him his recall notice.
Solis' death is under investigation in Texas, but it seems clear that the U.S. auto recall system failed him, as it has failed others before.
Ensuring against safety defects over the lifetime of machinery as complex as an automobile is difficult. But some basics are already established.
Automakers are responsible to make safe autos and, as safety flaws are discovered, to design and build replacement parts. They also must notify affected owners and ensure that repairs are made.
New-vehicle dealerships are responsible for repairing recalled autos.
Vehicle owners who are notified are responsible for getting their recalled vehicles fixed, for free, at brand dealerships.
And regulators must detect systemic safety flaws and ensure that affected vehicles are recalled and repaired.
The existing recall system protects U.S. consumers most of the time. But it misses too many defects. It has holes, especially after original owners sell their vehicles. Recall completion rates vary widely. The notification letters automakers send to owners rarely have a follow-up mechanism to verify receipt.
An inadequate patchwork regulates the obligations of fleet operators, used-car dealers, regulators and even consumers. The system fails to assure that the owner of every recalled vehicle is notified and that repairs are made.
Big hurdles must be overcome before the industry can achieve 100 percent recall notification and 100 percent repair. Some steps are easier, such as improving a federal website listing vehicle recalls. Others require policy changes. For example: Should vehicles be required to have all recall repairs made before they are registered or resold?
Automakers and new- and used-car dealers want more effective recalls, but they are reluctant to take on new burdens.
The ongoing recall of Takata airbags in 14 million U.S. vehicles, plagued by a shortage of replacement parts for months, undercuts consumer confidence in auto safety. It highlights the shortcomings of today's recall system.
It's time for the auto industry to use its lobbying muscle to push for comprehensive reform legislation.
There must be no more cases like that of Carlos Solis.