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Almost Half of U.S. Vehicles Aren't Covered Under Existing Safety Regulations

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April 30, 2015—Hundreds of crashes involving defective cars are going unreported each year because under U.S. safety rules automakers aren’t required to report suspicious accidents for models more than 10 years old, safety advocates say.

The average age of cars on U.S. roads is 11.4 years, and almost half of vehicles aren’t covered under existing regulations. As a result, many incidents don’t make it into a government early-warning database designed to catch patterns of defects that regulators can use to determine if a recall is necessary.

Legislation introduced in February by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) would eliminate the 10-year limit as part of a broader effort to make safety data more useful to the public. That legislation is still being reviewed in committee. 

“The law is absolutely out of date because companies have made it out of date by ignoring defects for so long in some of these cases,” said Joan Claybrook, a Washington-based consumer advocate who led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1970s. “It ought to be open-ended."

This year, about 121 million cars and trucks aren’t covered under existing rules, according to IHS Automotive, which predicts that the average vehicle age will rise to 11.9 years by 2019. As such, it may be time to ditch the time limit altogether, said Allan Kam, an auto-safety consultant who spent 25 years at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Even if you make it 12 or 13 years, there will still be millions of vehicles not covered,” he said. “If equipment is supposed to last the life of the vehicle, it should measure the life of the vehicle.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 carmakers including GM, Ford and Toyota, hasn’t taken a position on eliminating the time limit. Nor has NHTSA, but spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said the agency regularly evaluates potential defects of vehicles older than 10 years. He also said existing regulations require automakers to notify NHTSA and consumers if a safety defect exists even if the law doesn’t require a free remedy.

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