A number of experts believe that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation into the timeliness of Graco Children’s Products Inc.’s recall of more than 6 million car seats was an attempt to bolster the agency’s reputation. The probe came after U.S. lawmakers questioned NHTSA’s effectiveness during the General Motors Co. and Takata Corp. recalls. NHTSA is investigating whether the child-seat maker waited too long to report a defect that causes the buckles of child and infant car seats to get stuck and difficult to unlatch from food, juice or formula seeping into the latch.
NHTSA published a series of reports on the car seats this year, saying it had been investigating the buckles since 2012. There were a number of problems relating to the car seats. For example, the buckles would get so impenetrable that parents would end up having to pick up the child and the seat — which could together weigh more than 70 pounds — to lift it out of the car in an emergency. The defect has led to the recall of some 6 million car seats since February, the largest child seat recall in U.S. history, according to NHTSA. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the statement:
The department is committed to ensuring that parents have peace of mind knowing that the car seat in which they are placing their child and their trust is safe and reliable. Any delays by a manufacturer in meeting their obligations to report safety issues with the urgency they deserve, especially those that impact the well-being of our children, erodes that trust and is absolutely unacceptable.
A number of experts say NHTSA’s move is likely also motivated by increased public and congressional scrutiny over the agency’s effectiveness. The GM and Takata recalls this year have shown clearly that NHTSA has had its own potential lapses. In the GM case, for example, NHTSA failed to connect the dots between stalling vehicles and air bag nondeployment, even though outside researchers did make that link.
Investigating the timeliness of Graco’s reporting of the safety defect could also allow the agency to pursue civil penalties up to $35 million, the maximum penalty for failures to notify NHTSA about safety defects. The agency has leveled that maximum fine against GM as part of a settlement over the ignition switch defect. The GM ignition switch defect led to the recall of millions of vehicles this year, and caused hundreds of deaths and injuries.
As has been widely reported, the Takata defect involves an air bag defect that causes them to explode in high humidity, exposing passengers to wounds by shrapnel-like pieces. We know that the defect has caused deaths and injuries. NHTSA is currently playing a high-stakes game of catch-up in the Takata debacle.
Under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, car product manufacturers have up to five business days to inform the agency after noticing a safety-related problem. The agency’s move to pursue such penalties is a sign that it might be attempting to flex its muscles after a difficult year, experts say. “The agency has traditionally placed a greater focus on child seat safety,” said Allan Kam, a former senior enforcement attorney at the agency. “But the intense focus on NHTSA by the media and Congress this year certainly makes the agency more sensitive to accusations or suggestions that the agency is not on top of things. So I’d think that the agency would want to err in favor of looking more vigilant.”
Graco, an Atlanta-based unit of Newell Rubbermaid Inc., announced in February that it was pulling 3.7 million car seats manufactured from 2009 to 2013 from the market. NHTSA had recommended that the company recall another 1.9 million.
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