Total Recall: Bad for the Working Poor

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It seems like a common sense, life-saving proposal:  US Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) want state motor vehicle agencies to require completion of automakers’ safety recall repairs before issuing license plates (“Senators unveil bill to require recall fixes,” Detroit News, March 2).

Their justification, of course, is safety. But on a closer look,  the bill is just a sop to the auto industry. Its biggest effect will be to hurt working people.

Pop quiz: Of the top three causes of auto accidents, where does “failure to get recall items fixed” rank?

Answer: It doesn’t.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (no, auto accidents aren’t a disease; neither is “gun violence;” take it up with CDC), the top three causes of car wreck injuries are distracted driving, speeding, and drunk driving. The vast majority of accidents are caused by driver error (often due to driver stupidity). Mechanical failure of any kind, let alone due to unrepaired recall items, doesn’t make the list.

The auto industry’s lobbyists indicate cautious support for the Markey/Blumenthal proposal (they’re awaiting details). Why? Because it covers their bottom lines. If they’ve sent recall notices out, they can deny liability in accidents occurring after the covered cars next get licensed. Good for them, I guess.

But bad for those of us who drive “beaters” — older, cheaper cars like my wife’s 1989 Volvo.

Many drivers can’t afford to buy cars new off the lot or make mid-three-digit monthly payments on fairly recent models. They take their chances on older, cheaper vehicles because they live paycheck to paycheck.

Yes, the costs of recall repairs are theoretically covered. If you live within reasonable distance of a dealership. If you can afford to do without your car for awhile. If you can get off work for multiple trips to the DMV.

Those may not be problems for upper-middle-class drivers with late-model cars, bought from dealerships that make “loaner cars” available to valued customers.

For the working poor, the policy may mean missing work hours required to make rent. It might even mean losing a job. Not for lack of safe transportation, but for inability to satisfy politicians’ desire to “get something done” (and be seen doing so).

If Markey and Blumenthal really want to use federal power to enhance highway safety, here are two suggestions:

First, forbid the states to require license plates for driving on federally funded highways (they’d likely follow suit to state roads on their own). Let insurance companies handle safety requirements and inspections. They don’t like paying off accident claims. Their safety and inspection requirements might be even more stringent than government’s.

Secondly, stop forcing automakers to install features that aren’t ready for prime time (the most well-known recall at the moment concerns airbags, which should be optional but which federal law requires). Automakers, insurers, and drivers are more competent to decide than politicians and bureaucrats.

Absent those steps, let’s at least put the brakes on Markey’s and Blumenthal’s very bad idea.

 

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

 

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