Wednesday

Super Secret Safety Defect Files Your Govt Won't Tell You About

For nearly three years the major car makers have been shipping millions of pages of secret safety defect data to federal safety regulators that they don't want the public to get hold of, while your tax dollars are being used to organize and keep track of it all. Turns out you get to pay for it, but you don't get to know what's in there.

8 million consumer complaints. 138 million warranty claims. 5 million other reports which detail product malfunctions. It's all part of an "early warning program" set up by congress to prevent another Firestone tire failure type of scandal. And it's all kept secret by government officials at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration --- the same folks who are well paid by your tax dollars to keep the public informed of these very things. Sounds like someone's been sleeping with the enemy to me...

The Firestone mess occurred because of tread separations and other failures that were linked to at least 271 deaths and which resulted in the company recalling 10 million tires. Ford used millions of the tires and ended up redesigning their vehicles and facing huge lawsuit costs while Ford's reputation took a beating. Firestone also took a beating.

There was even a cartoon circulated that jokingly hinted the Concord airplane crash (that happened about that time) might have been the result of Firestone tires failing.

The "big 3" and some German and Japanese manufacturers have argued that this new "defect info" should be kept secret and federal investigators have been trying to do just that, even though it was originally thought that all this data would be available to the public.

The automakers trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, has fought hard to keep the quarterly reports classified as confidential business information so that the public can be kept in the dark. Federal safety officials, often appointed or hired by political appointees, agreed, claiming that if they disclosed the malfunction and failure reports then the car companies might stop telling them about vehicle defects.

Safety critics, including the former director of NHTSA Joan Claybrook, have complained that federal safety officials shouldn't keep the defect data secret and that the public has a right to know. Her organization, Public Citizen, filed suit in 2004 to force the secret records to come to light and last March a federal judge agreed. Meanwhile, the argument goes on.

In case you think the defect data is actually being used, it doesn't look like it. Turns out that safety officials opened about the same number of defect investigations in the five years since Congress created this "early warning system" as they did in the five years before it. That suggests that the data isn't resulting in anything unsual happening at all.

Seems to me that if tax dollars are being used to compile and track defect data, then taxpayers ought to be able to find out what the data says. It'd be a shame to find out later that the carmakers were telling the feds about serious safety defects that could kill, and no one was doing anything to make sure the public was being warned.

You can help. Complain to Congress. You can find your representative, and send them a quick email, by clicking here. Just say "the NHTSA early warning system data should be made public so please do something about it." That will help.

Meantime, if you think you've got a defective car or truck (and safety officials aren't warning any of us about what they are learning from this secret data), contact us. We can help.

Friday

Airbags Work --- Even in Airplanes

Airbags have been in cars for over a decade. In spite of some naysayers, anecdotal and other evidence indicates they clearly can save lives. Now, they are available for airplanes too.

With 9 US locations, AmSafe builds safety equipment and that includes airbags for airplanes. Building airplane airbags may sound like a fledgling market, but the Amsafe Aviation Inflatable Restraint system has probably already saved lives. In three different aviation accidents, five people walked away without help and with no life threatening injuries at all.

Bill Hagan, president of AmSafe, cites studies that say that half of all aviation accidents occur during taxi, takeoff or landing and survival often depends on staying conscious after the accident occurs. That's where AmSafe's airbags come in.

Working much like an automobile airbag, the bag can inflates in front of the occupant, providing the same safety cushion designed for cars and trucks over 20 years ago. That was roughly when the Insurance Institute and others began touting the safety aspects of what was then a still unproven design. Detroit fought airbags, claiming the extra cost was not worth it. Gradually, the scientists won the argument.

Nowadays, no one thinks twice about airbags. You expect there's one in your new car (and there is). Makes sense they'd work in airplanes too. You can watch some video footage of airplane airbags in action by clicking here.

I've travel thousands of air miles and never been an accident once. Then again, I can say that about motor vehicles too. Just like with seat belts, knowing the airbag is there makes you feel just a little safer in a car. No reason it wouldn't be the same in a plane.

Although the odds are still small, you are 60 times more likely to be injured in a general aviation accident than if you are riding in a scheduled US air carrier flight, according to federal investigators.

I don't know if we'll ever see airbags installed in a huge commercial airliner, but for smaller general aviation aircraft, they just make good sense. An airbag doesn't stop a car from being a lemon, but it can save your life. The same thing just might be true for airplanes.

Thursday

Dealers Improving Service


Car dealers are improving but they still keep some customers waiting, irritating them and costing them business.

The JD Power Sales Satisfaction Index analyzes the purchase "experience" based on reports from the car buying public. What people complain about most? Long waits for the paperwork process after negotiating the purchase and a general feeling of being poorly treated, according to the survey.

On average, the auto sales industry creeped up 5 points on a 1,000 point scale (barely a bubble), accoring to the survey, which measures satisfaction with the dealership facility, salesperson, paperwork/finance process, delivery process and vehicle price.

Nearly a third of all vehicle sales take place on a weekend, when consumers aren't at work, according to the survey.

Jaguar is the top dog when it comes to giving customers a pleasing buying experience, while Mazda Mitsubishi, Nissan and Suzuki tied for worst.

But not everything is the buying experience. Quality still counts and that's a whole different story. A lot of German and Japanese cars took took quality honors and have consistently done so.

Car dealers of all kinds have lots of ways of making money off you. Things like the negative equity ripoff, arbitration clauses that can keep you from suing them when you find out what they did to you, ourageously priced window etching so-called "security systems" that are nothing but some high priced window scratches, and outright fraud.

When it comes to getting rid of lemons, or getting your money back from ripoff car dealers, that's what we do best...in fact, that's about all we do and all we've done for nearly 30 years. If a car dealer ripped you off, if you got stuck with a lemon, call us. Chances are, we can help you get out of that mess they put you in.

Wednesday

California Sues Auto Companies over Global Warming

California is taking the global warming fight straight to the tailpipe!

Talk about creative government lawyering, for the first time a state is trying to hold car makers liable for the greenhouse gases that scientists believe are warming up the atmosphere and damaging the environment.

"Global warming is causing significant harm to California's environment, economy, agriculture and public health," California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in a statement announcing the lawsuit his office was filing against GM, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

The lawsuit claims that the carmakers have created a public nuisance by turning out millions of vehicles that emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide. The car companies did not appear to be immediately worried, probably relying in part on a similar New York case that was filed against some utility companies there and was thrown out of court.

California and 11 other states also are involved in a lawsuit that challenges what they call the federal EPA's refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, now awaiting Supreme Court review.

Some people shake their head at California's decades-old struggle to clean up its air by battling Detroit, but it did establish the first air pollution control districts way back in 1947, in an attempt to help rid Los Angeles of the smog that was already being recognized even back then (the word "smog" didn't even exist then; they called it a "gas attack").

This new lawsuit may be political grandstanding by the Governator, but it certainly will at least get Detroit's attention for the moment.

Anything that makes Detroit think about building more fuel efficient and less polluting cars is a step in the right direction. People might put up with a few more defects (lemons?) if they got such good mileage that they couldn't resist it.

Tuesday

Federal Investigations and Lousy Financials Haunt Chrysler

DaimlerChrysler looks to be facing tough times and tough troubles.

Recently the company announced that it had immediately suspended some senior managers after a probe uncovered what it calls "unspecified irregularities" (corporate speak for "we aren't gonna tell you how bad it is").

The company is already under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations that it used slush funds to bribe foreign officials, as US financial regulators and criminal investigators continue looking into potential violations of anit-corruption laws because of payments the company has said deal primarily with transaction involving government entities in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe.

On top of that, the Chrysler group last month posted a $1.46 billion (with a "B") loss for the third quarter. Luckily, the Mercedes and Truck divisions are making up for it.

Meanwhile, rumors continue to float that the Chrysler group may be for sale. When asked, its Chief Financial Officer Uebber said "We don't exclude anything here," including structural changes as the company aims to improve its profit margins by a publicly announced $1,000 per vehicle.

Even at that, however, it's doing a lot better than GM and Ford, which are projected to be losing $1,271 and $451 respectively for each vehicle sold in the US while Chrysler squeezes out a narrow profit of $144. Even at that, all three are miles behind Nissan's $2,135 profit per vehicle Toyota's profit of $1,715 per vehicle and Honda's $1,259.

If you're in the market for a new car, the manufacturer's financial stability is something you might want to consider. When companies pinch pennies, quality control can be the first thing to go out the window. When that happens, the lemons start popping. If you get one, call or email or fax us.

Monday

Does Mike Ramirez have it right about Ford?


Kudos to Michael Ramirez for an insightful editorial cartoon that appeared in many major newspapers November 4th. You can see more of his great cartoons by clicking here.

I don't think the employee parking lot is quite as full of imported cars as the cartoon suggests, but there's no doubt that employee brand loyalty is way, way down. Either they aren't getting enough of a discount, or perhaps they suffer the same Lemon Law fatigue as other consumers?

Wednesday

New Web Site to Complain (or Applaud) Your Car Dealer


MyDealerandMe.com just might work. It can't hurt.

There's a new web site that promotes itself as the place where consumers can complain about the treatment they receive at their local car dealership. Or, they can applaud how their dealer treated them. The site was created for car dealers and their customers, the site's founders say, to provide a place where owners can rant or rave about dealers who are in the site's 18,000-dealer database.

Owners can also rate their car dealer experience on a scale of 1 to 5. When a consumer posts their comments, they are apparently forwarded to the dealer, who then gets a chance to respond. Failing to respond, the site says, will affect their rating on the site. That's the tricky part.

Nothing is said about whether the customer's remarks are publicly posted, to be viewed by anyone, or if this is a "private" system where the dealer gets to try to resolve consumer complaints first. Obviously, the very fear of a negative posting can have an impact on the way a car dealer treats future customers, just as much as the fear of not satisfying a complaining customer whose post was sent to the dealer for them to "head off at the pass" so to speak.

While MyDealerandMe.com appears at first glace to be slanted in favor of car dealer use, a competing web site, DealerRater.com, appears to be slanted in favor of consumer use and may be another place to check out your dealer's rating by consumers. Other consumer gripe sites are easy to locate too.

Time will tell. Still, just having the chance to communicate directly (hopefully) with someone "in charge" through the use of this new web site is enough to give us hope that car dealers will be listening. We'll have to wait and see. As we learn more, we'll update this post with more information. Like we said, MyDealerandMe.com just might work.

In the meantime, if you've been the victim of fraud committed by a car dealer or other merchant, you can find a lawyer to help you by clicking here.