Reckoning with the New Auto Recall Bill

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 19th, 2015.
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Some 46 million vehicles nationwide—nearly one in five on the road today—have a recalled, but unrepaired, safety issue. That’s because drivers, along with auto dealers and rental companies, have no legal obligation to fix safety recalls—a gaping regulatory loophole that puts millions at risk. For years lawmakers have more or less ignored the issue, until earlier this month, when Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey introduced the Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives (RECALL) Act. The bill would require car owners to comply with all pending safety recalls in order to reregister their vehicles with the DMV, a commonsense approach that would make roads safer. Yet while the new bill represents a critical step forward towards addressing our recall problem, it also raises troubling questions about how recalls are conducted and what the responsibility of manufacturers is to repair safety defects.

Undoubtedly the bill comes at a critical time. More vehicles were recalled in 2014 than ever before, 63.95 million in total. This more than doubled the previous record of 30.8 million vehicles, thanks to General Motors’ faulty ignition switches and Honda’s defective Takata airbags. Under current law, most of these cars are unlikely to be fixed; in 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the annual recall compliance rate in the United States averages 65 percent.

In the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect, my article “Road Hazard: Recalled but Not Repaired” explored the politics behind this growing public health issue, and I suggested that policymakers consider making registration renewals contingent on repairing outstanding safety recalls. This is how it’s handled in Germany, and as a result their recall compliance rate stands at 100 percent. At the time of publication, no legislator indicated interest in tying auto recall repairs to annual vehicle registration. The vast majority of political energy was spent on trying to increase manufacturer penalties and improve consumer notification systems.

Six months later, two senators introduced a bill that would do just what I had suggested. Honda even came out in support, saying that this “initiative will help us all achieve the critical goal of completing 100 percent of every automotive recall campaign in America.”

Keith Crain, the editor-in-chief of Automotive News, wrote an editorial in support of the bill, praising it for its simplicity. “It should be enacted by Congress and implemented by all 50 states as quickly as possible,” Crain said. “It just makes good sense.”

However, upon a closer inspection, it’s clear that there are several issues with the RECALL Act, perhaps precisely because of its simplicity. It’s encouraging that legislators are starting to see consumer responsibility as part of the solution to our recall crisis, yet as it’s currently written, the proposed bill may lead to a whole new set of problems.

If this bill were enacted millions of people would have to get their cars repaired, or else they would be put in the position of driving their cars illegally. It’s the right idea in principle, but we’d need to ensure that people actually have the supports necessary to meet these new standards. As of now, the bill’s three listed exceptions to getting your car repaired are too vague. You may be exempt if you weren’t notified of the recall when the registration renewal came out, if the manufacturer lacks the parts or labor to complete the recall, or if you’ve demonstrated that you had no reasonable opportunity to fulfill the recall. If you fall under one of these categories, the DMV could grant you a temporary registration of up to 60 days.

But these conditions raise more questions than answers. How could you prove that the parts were not available? How often do you have to call the dealer to check in? Every day? Do you need to check in with every dealer in your state? Within a certain radius? What constitutes a “reasonable opportunity”? Will manufacturers provide consumers with loaner vehicles? What if you need longer than 60 days? Given that there were many reports of consumers waiting for months for new GM ignition switches to arrive at their local dealerships, these details matter—especially when the consequence would mean losing the ability to drive your car lawfully.

Questions about how manufacturers may use this bill to shirk legal liability in the event of auto accidents should certainly be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

Moreover, the bill also raises troubling legal questions. An auto safety advocate, whom I spoke with on background, laughed when I asked them for their thoughts on the bill. “Of course Honda supports it! It totally shifts liability away from the manufacturer and onto the consumer,” they said. Questions about how manufacturers may use this bill to shirk legal liability in the event of auto accidents should certainly be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

Newer cars are more likely than older cars to have safety recalls repaired. One of the primary reasons for this is that the car manufacturers lack the ability to mail notices to anyone who purchases their car on the used car market. (There are approximately 30 million consumers who purchase used cars each year.) Under the Driver Privacy Protection Act, auto manufacturers are barred from learning the personal information of secondary owners, so therefore when recall notices go out, most people with older cars do not hear about it. Consequently, the only real way to notify used car owners by mail would be for the state to step up and take on this responsibility. In that respect, the Blumenthal-Markey bill represents a very good step towards fixing our recall notification problem, and experts think it could substantially reduce the number of unrepaired vehicles on the road.

But while the bill would require significant changes to the DMV registration process, it comes with no additional state funding to implement them. In effect, it’s an unfunded mandate. Many state DMVs rely on outdated computer systems, and building the capacity to process millions of auto recalls alongside their registration process—though it’s a smart and feasible idea in theory—requires resources. The bill also threatens to reduce states’ federal highway funding by 5 percent if they do not comply. If we’re going to ask the states to take this on, then we need to ensure they have the capacity to do so.

Many groups like the Center for Auto Safety and the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program are working closely with the federal government to figure out how we can improve this recall process and thereby make the roads safer. Despite the great political pressure facing legislators to take bold action quickly, it would be much better to proceed judiciously, hash out the details, and avoid chaos later.

In Response to a Defense of Voter ID Laws

Originally published 9/23/12 in the JHU Politik.

I write this piece in response to Christopher Winer’s opinion featured in last week’s issue entitled, “Making Your Vote Count Through Voter ID Laws.” Winer argues that Voter ID laws are “common sense”, that they would work to “inspire public confidence” in our electoral system, and that the laws really pose only a “minor problem” to voters who lack proper identification.

I beg to differ.

I am from Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in this upcoming election; Pennsylvania is also currently the state with the strictest Voter ID law in the country. While not all states with Voter ID laws have the same requirements, I will focus on Pennsylvania here because it’s often at the center of this national debate.

Winer insists that although these laws might at the most be a “minor infringement of freedom,” overall they are ultimately worth it.

First it is worth considering, why would they be hypothetically “worth it?” One might answer: these laws work to prevent in-person voter fraud. However Pennsylvania has already ruled in court proceedings that there has been no evidence of an issue with in-person voting fraud in the state. So these laws are quite a risky “preventative solution” to a non-existent problem.

For many, obtaining an ID is truly difficult. This summer I worked at home as an Organizing Fellow on the Obama re-election campaign; the confusing and continually revised Voter ID law was a key concern for voters and organizers on almost a daily basis. I recall one instance where a frustrated middle-aged man came into the Obama office, identified himself as a high school English teacher, and asked in exasperation, “Where can I find a DMV that actually issues these IDs? I moved here recently and I’ve driven to four different DMV centers today and none of them offer photo ID services!” This anecdote was extremely telling. This man, who had the money, time, and means to travel to at least five different DMVs, still struggled greatly to obtain an ID. A majority of individuals who lack proper identification have none of these three things.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, nine rural counties have no DMV centers at all. In an additional 20 counties containing 1.5 million people, Driver’s License centers are open three or fewer days a week. (13 counties have DMVs only open one day per week.) Also, only seven out of 67 total counties have more than one DMV center.

In the Pennsylvania lower-court decision on this issue, Judge Simpson wrote that the number of registered voters without valid voter ID falls “somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent”, or in other words, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 registered Pennsylvanian voters.

I agree with Winer that we should clean up the voter registration rolls, among other things. We should be working to enforce laws for problems we have, not problems we don’t have. Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues that the voter ID law specifically creates more problems than it fixes. “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, [and] aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists,” Singer tells KYW Newsradio.

What I find most ironic about Winer’s piece was his suggestion that in order for the government to reimburse travel costs to the DMV, individuals should present a utility bill or a bank statement to prove they are who they say they are. Or in other words, the forms of identification that used to be acceptable and legitimate enough to vote now are only good enough to get reimbursed.

You know what would inspire public confidence in our electoral system for me? If we advocated for a system where registered American citizens were easily able to exercise their right to vote—ensuring that we really have moved past the dark days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and unabashed disenfranchisement of women and minorities. If people think we need Voter IDs in order to instill confidence, then over the next few election cycles let us work to phase that process in responsibly. But if we want to ensure that all registered citizens will be able to cast their ballot in the upcoming election, we must admit that there is no way this nation will be ready to handle the proposed ID laws by November 6th. It is simply logistically infeasible.