Claybrook, the former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief, called me Friday to make sure I got the message that FCA's action wasn't purely altruistic. FCA is compelled to satisfy the terms of its $90 million-plus 2015 consent order with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for failure to properly administer recalls, part of which requires the company to spend money on outreach about the dangers of leaving defects unaddressed.
To Claybrook, the new website and slogan sounded like so much window dressing, an opportunity for FCA to burnish its image without having to do much work.
Claybrook faulted the National Safety Council campaign, which directs people to go to its website, "and then switches them to NHTSA, when they could easily have referred them to NHTSA" in the first place, she said. "The amount of work is relatively minimal."
To be fair, anything that can encourage people to go to the dealer to fix a dangerous defect has some worth. The concern is that more active measures are needed to not only publicize recalls but also lure in owners, especially second or third owners who no longer have direct contact with a dealer's service department, to come in and get them fixed.
Creative ways auto companies can increase recall response rates include use of social media (as GM did in its ignition switch recall), incentives such as a free vehicle inspection or coupons to local food establishments, she said.
Claybrook, a former president and current board member of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, also took the unusual step of criticizing the National Safety Council for selling out to corporations.
"It looks like they're giving credibility to FCA," Claybrook said. "Most safety groups do not take money from the auto industry, except for the National Safety Council."
She called their behavior "misleading" and "unethical."
The National Safety Council is partially funded by the auto industry and its corporate foundations. Among the donors it lists on its website for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2016, are the General Motors Foundation at the top tier, Toyota and FCA US, along with suppliers AK Steel and Cummins Inc.
"Our mission is to save preventable deaths," council spokeswoman Maureen Vogel, said in response to the criticism. "We have a proven track record of running public education campaigns" since being chartered by Congress 105 years ago, and "15,000 companies and organizations are members because they want access to safety information." She added: "FCA sees a danger of 53 million recalled vehicles on the road and is trying to take a leadership position."
FCA did say it will spend another $800,000 on its own on outreach, especially in rural areas where people live away from a dealer.
"We're not in this campaign because we want to roll up an accounting number in relation to the consent order," said Chernoby. "It's got nothing to do with that. We're into this campaign because we think it's an extremely important initiative. And we're also facing a challenging exercise" in the Takata airbag recall.
Claybrook's biggest problem with "Check to Protect" is that it appears to shift the burden to make sure recalls are closed from the manufacturer to the consumer.
"Most manufacturers don't send a letter that really scares the hell out of you" or send follow up letters, and they place a lower priority on making replacement parts because they don't want to interrupt production lines churning out components for new vehicles, Claybrook said.