WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 1999 -- In theory, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) keeps a wary eye on automakers, swooping in to order recalls when safety defects are found.

But in reality, NHTSA, like most federal agencies, relies on the auto industry to report problems. Thus, if an automaker is slow to report problems, the agency may not find out about them until it's too late to do anything.

Once a car is eight years old, it can no longer be recalled, so it is in the automakers' best interests to stall as long as possible.

Ford Motor Co., for example, denied for five years that its vehicles were prone to steering-column fires before finally launching the largest auto safety recall in history in 1996.

By then, a number of motorists had died and many others had been injured in fires which allegedly resulted from faulty ignition switches in the steering columns of their Fords.

Ford quietly conducted a limited recall, replacing the faulty switches in some 27,000 fleet vehicles while publicly denying that there was a problem. Public pressure mounted as lawsuits were filed.

Ford eventually paid a $425,000 settlement to NHTSA for allegedly concealing information about the ignition-switch problems. But critics said it saved much more than that by reducing the number of vehicles it had to recall and repair. Even so, it wound up recalling eight million cars, trucks and vans.

"They lie all the time," former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook was quoted as saying in a recent Los Angeles Times story. Industry officials denied it.

In fact, NHTSA frequently learns about auto-safety defects the same way everyone else does -- through press reports following a product-liability lawsuit.

Critics of consumer class-action lawsuits seldom mention that such suits have become a major factor in ensuring that product safety defects are brought to the attention of consumers and regulators who are supposed to keep unsafe products off the market.

Ford is hardly the only automaker to have been slow to blow the whistle on itself.

  • Saturn General Motors originally denied that seat recliners sometimes caused Saturn front seats to flop backwards, causing accidents and injuries.
  • Suzuki Samurai During a NHTSA investigaiton, Suzuki failed to disclose records showing that General Motors had declined to market the Samurai because of its tendency to rollover.
  • Ford Bronco II Despite their involvement in at least 900 fatal rollovers, Ford was slow to produce data during a NHTSA probe.

NHTSA is trying to become more aggressive. It recently sent a stern letter to automakers demanding prompt and complete reports on defects.

The agency is reported to be conducting an extensive investigation of whether Chrysler has withheld information about fuel system leaks in some of its models built from 1993 to 1997. Chrysler recalled 680,000 vehicles iin 1998 but NHTSA wants to know whether the automaker could have done more sooner.