- Apr 12, 2013
One Woman's Persistence Contributed To Big Honda Recall
Carrie Carvalho helped shed light on involuntary braking problem
That day, the brakes on her 2005 Honda Pilot malfunctioned. The car was going 45 miles per hour when it came to a screeching halt in the middle of Route 2 in suburban Boston. Traffic swerved to avoid the car.
Rattled, she and two companions in the vehicle continued driving. A few minutes later, she says the brakes spontaneously applied again, causing the car to veer to the right and stop.
That was the start of her two-and-a-half year fight to force lawmakers and a major car company to pay attention to a frightening problem, a fight that ended only last month. Along the way, she helped demonstrate how consumers can navigate a complicated path and stand up for their own car safety.
"These vehicles are not very well regulated," Carvalho said. "There's not enough safety standards in place, bottom line, and the automakers are allowed to be self-regulated when it comes to handling these defects."
It took roughly seven years before Honda's recall of 183,576 cars, initiated on March 13, addressed a problem that may have been detected as early as 2006.
Honda overhauled the vehicle stability assist, which it calls electronic stability control, beginning on Pilots in the 2006 model year. A company spokesperson said the component switch was not made to address safety concerns.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration logged its first complaint of at least 20 about the 2005 Pilots on March 1, 2007. In the interim, according to NHTSA's investigation, at least 185 motorists had noted similar problems. But nobody had done what Carvalho finally did -- file a petition with NHTSA.
"The average citizen doesn't know that exists," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center For Auto Safety. "I had looked at Carrie's complaint, and decided there's a reason for this, and expected they would open an investigation."
"This isn't possible"
October 10, 2010 was a beautiful fall day in Boston. It was also a dry day. Carvalho rode in the passenger seat. A friend drove. His 8-year-old son rode in the back.
Already frightened the first time her brakes malfunctioned, she had paid close attention to his actions behind the wheel. When the brakes locked again, she knew he wasn't at fault.
"He said, 'My foot was on the accelerator,'" she said. "We were both like, 'This isn't possible.'"
Carvalho wasn't the only Honda Pilot owner to experience such a problem. In a later investigation, the Office of Defects Investigation within NHTSA identified 185 incidents of similar unexpected braking, including several that resulted in "rapid deceleration" on busy highways, according to ODI's case summary.
Twenty official complaints logged similar, harrowing tales. She pressed both Honda and NHTSA, the federal agency charged with investigating safety defects, to examine the involuntary braking problem. When they didn't, she took the extra, little-used step of filing a defect petition with the agency, one of only six filed in 2012, asking that the problem be investigated.
There's an important difference in how complaints and petitions are handled. A complaint is added to NHTSA's database of vehicle owner questionnaires, and researchers in the ODI can use them to identify trends. They do not require action. When a consumer files a petition, on the other hand, ODI officials must evaluate its merits, and determine whether to further investigate or deny the petition.
After more than a year of urging Honda and NHTSA to more broadly examine the problem with the vehicle stability assist, which Honda calls electronic stability control, Carvalho filed her petition with NHTSA on April 9, 2012.
"She did what every citizen should do, look for information on other complaints, see what others did and sent it in," Ditlow said.
On June 4, 2012, her petition was granted.
A preliminary investigation commenced. In October, NHTSA said a faulty yaw rate sensor was sending an incorrect signal to a modulator that controlled the vehicle stability assist.
"This may result in inappropriate VSA system activation, which is perceived by the driver as a momentary steering pull," the agency's summary report said.
That preliminary evaluation led NHTSA to upgrade its investigation to an Engineering Analysis, which widened the scope of its investigation to assess the safety consequences of the defect.
On March 13, Honda announced it was recalling 101,000 Honda Pilots, including approximately 88,000 from the 2005 model year, 60,000 Acura MDX vehicles and 21,000 Acura RLs. In its recall notice, Honda blamed the error on a bad bolt, saying an improperly torqued fastener can result in electrical resistance in the VSA system, causing the incorrect signal to be sent.
The automaker said no crashes or injuries have been reported related to the VSA problem, and disputed that Carvalho was the lone source behind the recall.
"The Carvalho case was definitely part of the equation," Honda spokesperson Chris Martin said. "But the recall was initiated after a thorough investigation of all the potential causes of this symptom."
Deciding to speak up
Carvalho draws satisfaction from the recall announcement, believing her efforts may have saved lives, but it's a bittersweet end to her problem.
Two-and-a-half years removed from the incident, her Pilot sits in the driveway of her Arlington, Mass., home. She has dutifully made every monthly payment in the interim. But the car has not budged since Oct. 10, 2010.
Initially, Honda offered to fix her car with "repairs that wouldn't resolve the problem," Carvalho said.
Likewise, many of the complaints to NHTSA indicated Honda mechanics had little understanding of how to resolve the problem. One wrote: "The service advisor told me there was no indication of a problem and the car's computer didn't indicate that the VSA had ever been on."
Another: "We took the vehicle to the Honda dealership in Staten Island when they told us that we needed four new tires and to replace the catalytic converter," the complaint said. "With that diagnostic I told them that they had no idea what they were talking about."
In Carvalho's case, Honda later offered a settlement. In correspondences dated April 13, 2011, January 17, 2012 and January 27, 2012, Honda offered to replace the modulator, anti-lock brake systems and brake switch at no cost. In the final letter, a lawyer for Honda offered Carvalho a settlement of $1,600.48. But the three settlement offers all required her to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prohibit her from speaking further about her brake problems. She refused.
"And I'm glad I held out," she said. "We just went through these shenanigans with Toyota, and now Honda. This is not just isolated. This happens with defects across the board. ... A big problem exists in that the system we have in place doesn't expeditiously address these serious defects. This is serious time that has lapsed, and people should know they have a way to speak up."
How you can take action
Concerned about a serious problem in your own vehicle? Here are a few tips you use to pursue a remedy:
- Do some research. On SaferCar.gov and NHTSA.gov, citizens can search to see if other motorists have reported similar problems with their vehicles. Carvalho also discussed her problems with other Honda owners on message boards. She received assistance from Ditlow's Center For Auto Safety.
- File a complaint with NHTSA. You can do so online. Start by clicking here. Or you can print a PDF and mail it to the agency on the same page. Drivers can also do so by phone, calling NHTSA at (888) 327-4236.
- Take the next step. Drivers can also file a petition with NHTSA, which requires the agency to address the problem. A petition should be submitted to NHTSA, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington DC, 20590. It must contain a heading that includes the word "Petition" and contain the name and address of the person sending it.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed @PeterCBigelow.