Some owners of recalled coaches slow to fix defects

WASHINGTON — As many as 2,172 motorcoaches may be carrying passengers despite unresolved safety defects that were the subject of federal recalls in 2015 and 2016, a study of federal documents has found.

All six major bus manufacturers selling motorcoaches in North America were represented among 17 safety recalls conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during those two years. A total of 5,676 motorcoaches were recalled.

Unresolved recall defects rarely appear as factors in fatal or injury accidents, but if they do the impact can be enormous, posing the risk of punitive as well as compensatory damages, said Paul Berne, senior vice president of Lancer Insurance.

According to quarterly reports that manufacturers are required to submit to NHTSA, 3,504 of those recalled motorcoaches had their defects “remedied” by the end of the first quarter of 2017, leaving 38 percent with defects unremedied.

Under federal regulations, the reports must be filed for six quarters after a recall is issued and list the number of motorcoaches that have been repaired or “have been inspected and determined not to need the remedy.”

Federal law requires manufacturers to report defects and perform inspections and any needed repairs without charge to the vehicle owner. According to a federal guidance document, “vehicle manufacturers are responsible for their vehicles and all original equipment installed on them.”

The 2015-16 motorcoach recalls included 2,351 defects that could cause control of the coach to be impaired or lost; 1,617 defects that could pose fire risks; and 653 defects that could cause sudden engine shutdowns and loss of power.

Other defects present increased risk of injuries in the event of a collision or sudden deceleration — 1,149 involve seating and 63 involve window hardware.

Three additional safety recalls covering 842 motorcoaches have been issued in 2017. These have not yet been subject to quarterly reports.

Many of the coaches not reported as remedied may have been inspected and repaired if needed, said Tim LaFon, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Volvo Group of North America in Greensboro, N.C. The group includes Volvo Bus and Prevost.

“A lot of customers have big service facilities,” LaFon said. “In some cases they will do the repairs but have not submitted their claims yet. We might see a lower amount (of remedied coaches reported) but it is not necessarily that the vehicle has not been repaired.”

Nonetheless, the remedied rate remains at 67 percent for motorcoaches subject to 2015 NHTSA recalls, according to the latest quarterly reports. The six recalls that year covered 806 coaches, of which 537 have been reported as remedied.

Two of the 2015 recalls achieved total compliance. Motor Coach Industries reported that “single pedestal seats” on nine 2016 J4500 motorcoaches may have been installed with one of four bolts placed in an incorrect position.

Temsa reported that some air pressure relay valves may have permitted insufficient air pressure to reach rear axle parking brakes, allowing the parking brake to engage while the vehicle was in motion. The engaged brakes could have overheated and created a fire risk. All 64 of these 2013-2016 TS45 motorcoaches were remedied.

Noncompliance with NHTSA safety recalls is a concern across motor vehicle industries. According to a March report from the Congressional Research Service, NHTSA issued recalls for 120 million vehicles from 2013 through 2015 — 45 million had not been remedied by the middle of 2016.

“Recalls rarely achieve 100 percent completion rates, leaving many defective vehicles on the road long after a recall is initiated,” stated the report, “Issues with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”

“Safety recalls are voluntary,” LaFon said. “There is no way we can force people to come in and have their vehicles repaired.”

However, he believes Volvo’s commercial passenger vehicle operators are more diligent than other customers. “When you are carrying people instead of goods, you are going to be extremely careful,” he said.

MCI cooperates with NHTSA to release bulletins and diligently works with customers to update the affected vehicles, a spokesman for the coach manufacturer said.

Officials at Temsa and Van Hool failed to respond to requests for information.

The recent recall rates for motorcoaches are similar to rates for other motor vehicles.

“On average only about 70 percent of vehicles subject to recall are fixed within the 18-month period during which manufacturers provide recall completion data,” said a 2011 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report to Congress.

GAO called on NHTSA and Congress to strengthen regulations that would increase the remedy rates for recalled vehicles, including “developing national standards that would categorize the severity of a recall and whether a vehicle should be operated.”  Such advances could include authority to declare a vehicle an “imminent hazard.”

The 11 motorcoach recalls handled by NHTSA in 2016 accounted for 1.1 percent of the 927 motor vehicle recalls that year affecting 53.2 million units.

The agency listed 864 recalls as “uninfluenced,” meaning they were self-reported by manufacturers. It classifies an action as “influenced” if prompted by NHTSA investigations or ordered by NHTSA via the courts.

All motorcoach recalls since the beginning of 2015 appear to have been self-reported by manufacturers.

“Obviously things are going to happen from time to time, but we are trying to improve on making sure we have early notification,” Volvo’s LaFon said. “On the bus and truck side I have worked on over 100 recalls in the past 16 years. What we have done is identify items quickly and take action. What you will see in most cases — which is probably the case for other manufacturers, too — we are taking action before there is an accident.”

One of the largest recent recalls in the commercial vehicle industry was prompted by MCI when its certification procedures found that some Recaro Ergo M operator’s seats “did not hold the requisite load when tested” because some of the five required  welds on a bracket were missing.

The issue was reported to the seat manufacturer, which found the defect present on some seats because a metal part supplier “had deviated from the welding control plan without approval.”

It was estimated that the defect affected 1 percent of seats but led to a recall of 17,280 Ergo M seats, which the company markets for bus, motorcoach, truck, off-road, military and motorhome applications.

The 2015 seat recall required three motorcoach manufacturers to recall vehicles for inspections of seat welds. Affected were 607 MCI coaches from the 2011 to 2016 model years; 91 Setras from 2011 to 2012; and 205 Van Hools from 2011 through 2016.

A truck recall last year showed how successful compliance could be when regulators, manufacturers and operators work together.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration joined forces with NHTSA and Volvo Truck for an enhanced recall effort that produced total compliance, within nine months, of a safety recall affecting nearly 16,000 heavy trucks.

The recall was issued on Feb. 16 “due to a steering shaft defect that potentially could have caused the truck driver to unexpectedly and suddenly experience a complete loss of steering.”

“Acting immediately, NHTSA took the unprecedented step of reaching out to its sister agency and requested FMCSA to assist in getting the recalled commercial vehicles brought to a stop,” stated an NHTSA press release.

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