By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
In November, just before the National RV Trade Show, RV Daily Report published an editorial noting that RV recalls in 2017 were the highest they had ever been.
The article showed that 148 recalls had been reported through Nov. 21 and 123 had been issued in all of 2015. There were 71 in 2014, 107 in 2013, and 101 in 2012.
Since that story was published, companies in the industry issued 21 additional recalls in 2016 to bring the annual total to 169 — a 37.4 percent increase over the total recalls issued in 2015.
Knowing that there has been a dramatic increase in RV product quality complaints during the past few years, I indicated that the increased number of recalls may have been a reflection on poor product quality. Several people objected to that assumption, and Forest River hired a chest-thumping lawyer to send me a letter threatening all kinds of hideous actions for daring to suggest that.
I promised to do some additional research on the recall issue and report my findings. Since then, I have reviewed multiple documents issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, interviewed several people and reviewed items posted to the RV Industry Association’s website.
First of all, RV recalls are not related to product quality, per se. They are directly related to product safety, which trumps product quality, and for violating labeling requirements listed in federal motor vehicle safety standards.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has no interest in the hinges coming off a door, poor paint jobs, air conditioners failing to cool, or slideouts not working — unless they can be directly attributed to product safety.
For example, the inability of a slide room to extend or retract doesn’t matter to NHTSA, unless the motor activating the slides could overheat and cause a fire. Neither use, functionality nor cosmetic appearance concerns the government, but product safety will attract attention every time.
The increase in recalls in the past year appears to be directly related to the fact that many RV manufacturers were failing to comply with recall regulations for years until Forest River and Spartan Motors were fined $35 million and $9 million, respectively, in July 2015.
Forest River had to shell out $5 million in cash, but $30 million was deferred, meaning if the company didn’t violate the law again, it would not have to pay the balance of the fine.
According to a press release issued by NHTSA, both companies “each acknowledged failure to launch timely safety defect recalls as required by the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and to report critical data such as technical service bulletins and early warning report data.”
In fact, companies were skirting the recall requirements by sending out “service bulletins,” which informed technicians how to correct problems with an RV or a component. Or, the companies simply opted to pay to fix problems brought to their attention by unhappy consumers within the warranty timetable, one source noted. However, the firms were not notifying the government of the safety defects as is required by law.
Education becomes a priority
The consent order signed by Forest River required the firm to retain an independent monitor to conduct periodic audits of the company’s safety practices. If Forest River failed to resolve any issues discovered in those audits, then the $30 million fine would be payable at $3 million for a first violation, $7 million for a second and $20 million for a third. The agreement also required Forest River to hire an in-house consultant to assist in meeting requirements of the consent order.
NHTSA also dictated that the company would spend $10 million to “recruit, employ, retain and/or train qualified (and a reasonable number of) personnel” to relate Safety Act obligations and “best practices” to the rest of the industry at trade shows and other special events.
For its role in failure to comply with recall laws, Spartan had to pay $1 million in cash, agree to spend $3 million on compliance with the consent order and pay $5 million should another violation take place.
The consent order also required Spartan to undergo a third-party audit of its reporting practices; develop new written reporting procedures; and engage in an education and outreach campaign aimed at increasing awareness of reporting requirements in the medium and heavy-duty vehicle industry.
Recalls are not voluntary
Several people commenting on the original article I posted berated me for even drawing attention to the significant increase in recalls between 2015 and 2016. Doing so would “discourage” companies from initiating recalls, they suggested.
Hogwash. Every company manufacturing recreation vehicles is required by law to report safety defects to the federal government. Here’s what NHTSA indicates on its website:
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (originally enacted in 1966 and now recodified as 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301) gives the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles that have safety-related defects or do not meet federal safety standards.
Since then, more than 390 million cars, trucks, buses, recreation vehicles, motorcycles, and mopeds, as well as 46 million tires, 66 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment, and 42 million child safety seats have been recalled to correct safety defects.
Manufacturers voluntarily initiate many of these recalls, while others are either influenced by NHTSA investigations or ordered by NHTSA via the courts. If a safety defect is discovered, the manufacturer must notify NHTSA, as well as vehicle or equipment owners, dealers and distributors. The manufacturer is then required to remedy the problem at no charge to the owner.
So, it’s like taxes. I voluntarily send in a tax form and check every year, but if I failed to do so, then my bottom would be tossed in jail and the money physically extracted from my bank accounts.
Regulations require product manufacturers to not only retain documents relating to product safety, but to share that information with the federal government. Prior to 2013, NHTSA had major difficulties getting documents regarding RV defects. That would soon change.
Lack of volunteerism
There were so many RV manufacturers and suppliers failing to voluntarily initiate recalls for product safety violations that NHTSA had to step in and stir the pot. The first salvo was fired at a meeting with RVIA in September 2014 to explain that companies doing business in the industry were not complying with the requirements.
As a result of that meeting, NHTSA staff attempted to encourage interest in compliance with recall laws when the agency conducted a webinar Jan. 15, 2015, to educate business owners and managers as to the legal requirements for defect investigations and record retention requirements.
The RV Industry Association hosted the webinar and posted a copy of the video on the RVIA YouTube Standards Channel.
For the training session, RVIA teamed with the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers to offer a free webinar exclusively for members of the two associations. Participation was encouraged for engineers and lawyers working for RV manufacturers, trailer manufacturers or supplier companies as well as any company personnel responsible for compliance with NHTSA rules and regulations.
“This seminar will provide RVIA and NATM members the opportunity to better understand the structure of NHTSA and the Office of Defect Investigations (ODI),” said Bruce Hopkins, RVIA vice president of standards. “Attendees will receive insight and information on how and why NHTSA investigations are conducted, a company’s responsibility when receiving a request for an investigation from NHTSA, and the rules and procedures that apply to federal early warning reporting requirements.”
NHTSA brought in its heavy hitters as presenters including:
- Bruce York, chief of the the Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles Division
- Nate Seymour, safety defect investigator
- Nicholas Englund, with the Litigation and Enforcement Division in the Office of Chief Counsel.
The trio discussed the roles of NHTSA and ODI and reviewed key federal statutes and regulations, including:
- Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301 pertaining to motor vehicle safety
- Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 49 – General
- CFR, Title 49 ‐ Sec 576, regarding records retention for OEM and component suppliers for investigations and early warning reporting
- CFR, Title 49 ‐ Sec 579.5, regarding notices, bulletins, customer satisfaction campaigns, consumer advisories and other communications.
That was the second warning, and only 100 people participated, according to people familiar with the webinar.
Then, another webinar devoted to RV tires and usage was hosted by RVIA April 23, 2015. It was led by Tim Ball, executive vice president for marketing and sales with Tredit Tire, along with Walter Cannon, executive director of the Recreation Vehicle Safety Education Foundation (RVSEF).
However, York, representing the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation, led off the webinar by discussing tire speed ratings and reserve capacity. Manufacturers and component suppliers were warned again as to the legal requirements pertaining to tire recalls.
Unable to achieve any traction by encouraging manufacturers to “voluntarily” initiate recalls, NHTSA selected Forest River and Spartan Motors as the sacrificial goats to send a message to the rest of the industry that it meant business in enforcing recall regulations.
Following the assessment of fines, the industry woke from its complacency and started taking the matter seriously.
May 5, 2016, RVIA hosted a live seminar at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart. The event was attended by more than 300 people, according to an RV Business story. The webinar also appears on the RVIA Standards YouTube channel. The introduction to the webinar can also be viewed on that channel.
Since then, RV manufacturers and suppliers have been falling in line to immediately report safety problems that would result in a product recall. As a result, the number of recalls issued increased dramatically in the months that followed.
Expect more recalls
The RV industry should expect to see many more recalls being issued in the months and years ahead. NHTSA is engaging in a consumer education effort to encourage RV owners to report vehicle safety issues directly to NHTSA.
Here are some of the situations for which NHTSA would like consumers to communicate directly to the agency:
- Steering components that break suddenly causing partial or complete loss of vehicle control.
- Problems with fuel system components, particularly in their susceptibility to crash damage, that result in leakage of fuel and possibly cause vehicle fires.
- Accelerator controls that may break or stick.
- Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control.
- Engine cooling fan blades that break unexpectedly causing injury to persons working on a vehicle.
- Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate properly.
- Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use.
- Critical vehicle components that break, fall apart, or separate from the vehicle, causing potential loss of vehicle control or injury to persons inside or outside the vehicle.
- Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting.
- Vehicle ramps or jacks that may collapse and cause injury to someone working on a vehicle.
- Air bags that deploy under conditions for which they are not intended to deploy.
- Child safety seats that contain defective safety belts, buckles, or components that create a risk of injury, not only in a vehicle crash but also in non-operational safety of a motor vehicle.
Examples of defects that are not considered to be safety-related problems include:
- Air conditioners and radios that do not operate properly.
- Ordinary wear of equipment that has to be inspected, maintained and replaced periodically. Such equipment includes shock absorbers, batteries, brake pads and shoes, and exhaust systems.
- Nonstructural or body panel rust.
- Quality of paint or cosmetic blemishes.
- Excessive oil consumption.
Consumers who feel their recreation vehicles may have a safety defect, are encouraged to fill out a five-step form on the NHTSA website. There are separate forms to fill out for problems with tires, components and child safety restraints.
RV Daily Report requested and has received more than 253 megabytes worth of raw data concerning consumer complaints, defect investigations and manufacturer communications. These aren’t picture files, but rather massive text files of comma-delimited database dumps containing millions of pieces of information.
The smallest document NHTSA sent, which pertains to defect investigations, contains 86,908 records — and it’s just 2 percent the size of the consumer complaint data.
It will take considerable time for RV Daily Report to pour over the data, filter out information related only to recreation vehicles, reassemble it into a usable database, extract relevant material and prepare reports — but, we will do so over the course of the next several months. We’ll even try to create an online database that dealers and consumers can use to track complaint information and actual product recalls.