Vehicle ‘Safety Recalls’ and the MOT
It is surprising how few motorists don’t know what a vehicle recall is. Mainly attributable to road safety issues, it is when a vehicle has an undiscovered defect during manufacture – which the car makers then have to ‘recall’ back to their dealerships to have that defect remedied. Many are not safety related, and the problem would be fixed by the dealerships when the car comes in for service. However some defects can have serious safety related consequences if not remedied – a case in point related to some Vauxhall models which could, and did spontaneously catch fire.
Such safety recalls must be notified to the Government by the vehicle manufacturer, who also has an obligation to make contact with the vehicle owner. Yet surprisingly many safety recalls have not been fixed even when the vehicle has gone through many different owners.
A hidden road safety issue…
This is a serious road safety issue which the Government have known about for many years, yet it has received very little publicity. So we decided to have a closer look. The Government Agency responsible for working with the Motor Industry to log and trace such vehicles lies with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency so we asked them several questions about the subject including how many are outstanding. The numbers are staggering! Here’s what they sent to us…
“Safety recalls cover all vehicles, from cars and motorcycles to heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). Most safety recalls are for vehicles less than five years old. The recall profile shows that the newer the vehicle, the higher the rectification rates. The bigger challenge is getting the older vehicle recalls completed [ie where the vehicle has changed hands – Ed] and there is often less of a relationship with the dealer… The number of recalls vary and is a transient number. Here’s a snapshot of the last 5 years as of end of March 2020:”
“The purpose of carrying out the recall is to remove the risk posed by a vehicle defect. If the issue that led to the recall is not addressed, occupants of the vehicle or other road users will be put at some risk.”
Whilst it’s not clear whether that means there are currently over five million potentially dangerous vehicles on the road – or not, what stands out here is that the number of safety recalls registered with the DVSA by all the manufacturers remains relatively constant at between about 400 to 500 every year; yet the number of vehicles on the road with outstanding recalls has risen by just under five-fold, from less than 400,000 in 2017 to nearly 2 million in just over five years – why is that? Whilst DVSA have not provided a reason for this, they believe informally that it is linked with the reluctance of second, third or even later owners simply not bothering to respond to the dealer’s communications; or perhaps they don’t realise that the rectification will be done at the car maker’s expense.
Have road accidents resulted?
With so many vehicles on the roads with known safety defects, there must be serious road safety consequences. We asked DVSA, how many road accidents have been caused by unremedied safety recalls. Here’s what they had to say:
“DVSA does not record or compile road accident data, so we do not hold information as to whether accidents are caused by outstanding safety recalls. Ongoing use of a vehicle with a defect that has not been rectified could increase the risk of accident or injury.”
The interesting question arising from DVSA’s response is, ‘why not?’ Unfortunately, however, DVSA have offered no explanation. All we do know is that just a few years ago there was a lot of publicity on one example of a dangerous recall defect, with articles in the press and dramatic pictures of Vauxhall vehicles on fire, having spontaneously burst into flames! One of DVSA’s core responsibilities is road safety with regard to the condition of vehicles on our roads – so here’s a seemingly big problem, with millions of potentially dangerous vehicles being used every day on Britain’s roads, yet DVSA have no idea as to road safety outcomes – we find that somewhat surprising!
Now here’s another interesting thing. Vehicle emissions are a very contemporary matter of concern with millions of deaths being attributed to vehicle emissions. Yet it is widely known that the car makers cheated the system by the method of testing they adopted to prove to the authorities that their vehicles complied with the regulations. So what about defective emission equipment on a vehicle during manufacture – surely that should be a safety recall. We asked DVSA, here’s how they responded:
“Emission related issues are not classified as safety defects and the recalls process is focussed on vehicles and their components rather than driving… the DVSA Market Surveillance Unit (MSU), working closely with the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) checks that new products placed on the UK market comply with the relevant legal obligations. This is often referred to as ‘in-service’ testing. The checks were established by the Department for Transport in 2016 to oversee and manage a programme of continued testing of vehicles and components.”
Again, we are surprised. Pollution is a very vital issue, especially with the estimated death toll from vehicle pollution being so high, and environmental matters a key political issue in the modern world, – further, emissions are part of the MOT Test, presumably for that very reason – perhaps DVSA should upgrade “emission related issues” to become, “safety defects” and included in their safety recall process.
Are some manufacturers worse than others?
We have heard rumours from within the DVSA that some car makers are less successful in contacting owners to get their recalls fixed than others. Specifically that Japanese car makers are the best in that respect. We asked DVSA if they would let us know which car makers had most recalls, and which are the best, and worst, at contacting the vehicle’s owners. They did not address the question directly. Here’s their response:
“The process for manufacturers to follow is set out in the code of practice for vehicle recalls and the guide to managing a recall. DVSA monitors all safety recalls and follows up with a manufacturer where there are any causes for concern. All manufacturers are bound by the code of practice. We have done a lot of work with manufacturers since the introduction of the new code of practice to make sure it is understood and followed. As part of agreeing and managing a recall, DVSA will agree a plan with the manufacturer that is appropriate to the nature of the defect and the practicalities of the work needed, for example, how long the repair will take. The variation between customers, such as demographics and between vehicle types also need to be taken into account. So making comparisons between manufacturers is not always meaningful.
For example, a manufacturer could agree (with DVSA) and follow a plan for getting vehicles fixed but finds that there is a group of vehicle users who choose not to engage with the recall. This tends to be a more significant issue with older vehicles. Our research shows one of the simplest reasons is an out-of-date DVLA vehicle keeper record. In all cases, DVSA can monitor that the defect remains unrectified and support the process through reminders or other means.”
We suspect DVSA are being somewhat diplomatic here. We have heard that some car makers are not as helpful to DVSA as others, so we asked a supplementary question, and asked if DVSA has the power to sanction car makers if they failed to manage their recall issues adequately. Once again they were a bit coy in their answer:
Where a manufacturer does not carry out a safety recall or does not manage it correctly, DVSA has powers within the GPSR (General Product Safety Regulation) to take the necessary action. More information on this is contained in section 6 of this regulation.
They seem, pointedly, to have avoided giving us any explanation of what, “necessary action” they could take!
Finally we asked about what would happen to vehicle owners if involved in a road traffic incident caused by an unresolved safety related defect in their cars, and how that might affect their vehicle insurance. On the former issue their response was somewhat evasive. Here it is:
Vehicle owners have a responsibility to ensure the vehicle they drive is in a roadworthy condition at all times. If they are notified of a safety recall then they will be advised of the necessary steps to take, for example how to get the recall completed. Manufacturers are required to manage safety recalls quickly and to notify owners as a priority. Any accident investigation would assess these factors in reaching a conclusion as to its cause.
There are two key issues here. Firstly, was the vehicle owner aware of the defect, but had elected to do nothing about it? And following from that, when told about the defect, had enough information been provided by the car makers for the owner to have made a fully informed decision about not having the defect remedied. Secondly, it is quite likely that, say, the fourth owner of the vehicle had never been contacted. Now in serious road traffic incidents people could be seriously injured or die, and the legal outcomes could be very serious – perhaps criminality (manslaughter even) – so who is to blame then if the owner wasn’t aware of the fault – the car maker for failing to make contact – DVLA for their poor record keeping, DVSA for not taking the car maker to task for lack of diligence in making contact. Not easy at all… remember, to be convicted of manslaughter (for example) you don’t have to have intended to do something, but to have been careless of a known likely outcome.
Informing motorists – why not use the MOT?
DVSA know which vehicles have been subjected to safety recalls and specifically those that have been fixed, but don’t necessarily know how to contact the current owner of vehicles which haven’t yet been fixed. Surely the MOT provides a perfect mechanism to detect such vehicles – a simple database tweak to the MOT computer. We put this to DVSA, and they agreed:
“DVSA keeps the MOT under regular review. Some information for recalls is already made available to testers during the MOT and this information will be enhanced in future… we are also exploring further information that could be provided to vehicle owners through the MOT service, to help them keep their vehicle safe to drive. Safety related recalls is one of a number of options to provide helpful information to the vehicle owner. This could be through MOT History, direct GOV.UK look up service or even provide advice at the MOT test.”
We further asked if an outstanding safety recall would result in an MOT failure. The answer was, in effect, “not for the time being”, they said:
The aim is to make recall information available to the vehicle owner so they can get the item fixed as soon as possible, which may well be ahead of when the MOT is due. Initially we intend to provide advice to the vehicle owner as part of the MOT service. Depending on the response rates and outcomes, we will explore making outstanding safety recalls a possible reason for MOT failure.
We intend to carry out further analysis to understand why people do not have recalls completed. This will allow us to take the appropriate approach to support owners to keep their vehicles safe.
A latent danger to road safety?
It is very clear from DVSA’s answers that whilst they are fully aware of the huge number of vehicle safety recalls which have not been fixed potentially in use on the roads, they have little or no idea at all of the road safety affect these vehicles are having. It may be negligible, or perhaps more serious than we realise. It is by any reasonable assessment at the very least a hidden danger faced by motorists – many of whom may have no idea that the vehicle they are driving every day could cause a crash on the road – or spontaneously catch fire (for example).
Using the MOT to alert owners of these vehicles with outstanding recall defects is a good idea, but the best outcome should surely be an MOT failure – why take a chance on road safety – especially as the car maker will be footing the bill to remedy the situation. Of course one issue, given how many vehicles there are, could be the capacity of dealerships to fix so many vehicles. That though could easily be sorted – provide a time to have the remedy completed by.