TAMPA BAY, Florida - Many law enforcement agencies aren’t getting safety recalls fixed on their officers’ vehicles, putting both them - and anyone driving near them - at unnecessary risk.
10Investigates ran thousands of city and county-owned vehicles from across Greater Tampa Bay through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) database for safety recalls. And while some departments excelled in taking care of issues when they are notified, others let them go unchecked for years.
"(Law enforcement agencies) are endangering their lives and other peoples’ lives because they're driving these vehicles on the road," said Barry Peak, a mechanical defect consultant who previously worked in both law enforcement and for the Ford Motor Company. "These vehicles will tend to fail quicker than a vehicle that say, you or me are driving on an average day.”
While there are no known recall-related crashes in the Tampa Bay area, Peak says police and deputy cruisers are driven so hard - and so many miles - there is no room for error, and there's no excuse for agencies to not get most recalls fixed quickly.
Some of the unaddressed recalls 10Investigates found were of a rather mundane manner, like windshield wiper failures. But there were many of a serious nature, such as airbags that either don't deploy or deploy at the wrong time. There were also recalls pertaining to accelerators that got stuck down, loss of power steering and engine control, and severe fire hazards that sometimes occur without notice.
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It’s estimated 20-30% of consumers have an open recall on their personal vehicle. The municipal fleets for Tampa, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, and Hillsborough County performed much better. But because of a number of recalls related to Chevy Impalas and other vehicles popular among law enforcement, the recall rates at local police departments and sheriffs offices were much higher.
Hundreds of police vehicles spot-checked by 10Investigates at the the St. Pete Police Department (33%) and Pasco Sheriff's Office (43%) reveal some agencies fail to fix recalls promptly, with some issues getting ignored for nearly a decade.
"There was a failure in the system," Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told 10Investigates. "We’d give the recall letter to the deputies (and) tell them to go fix it. But there was no follow-up.”
Nocco added a new fleet manager has prioritized recall-replacement in recent months and is tackling the backlog of hundreds of issues.
"We should have had a plan in place," Nocco said. "Now we do have a plan in place to make sure every car will be taken care of.”
The St. Petersburg Police Department has also started recall-replacement work after 10Investigates brought the issues to its attention.
"Officer safety is paramount to our operations...(and we are) working with our Fleet Maintenance Department to identify and address the most pressing of the recalls," Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev wrote in an email to 10Investigates. "We were already aware of most of the recalls you have identified, but sometimes our best efforts are not efficient enough.
"Unfortunately we have faced a number of challenges related to the size of our fleet and the ability to coordinate with local dealerships to address some of the issues. Most of the vehicles identified are within our take-home program, which can cause additional issues related to issuing officers spare vehicles."
The best-performing local law enforcement fleet appeared to be Tampa Police's, with only 14% of vehicles needing recall work, many of which didn't have available fixes yet.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office took the longest time to return public records to 10Investigates, initially claiming no records existed pertaining to its fleet. But after nearly a month, 10Investigates found approximately 27% of the agency's vehicles needing recall work.
A sheriff's office spokesperson later admitted the agency had undertaken recall-replacement efforts during the time 10Investigates was seeking records.
Recalls have become a large and growing issue for both automakers and consumers over the past few years, and federal officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) take them seriously:
- Last June, federal law began forcing rental car companies to complete recall work before renting a vehicle.
- The law has also barred car dealers from selling new cars with pending recalls for some time.
- The federal government, under fire from lawmakers, has stepped up its enforcement of recall timing rules, hitting Toyota in March 2014 with a $1.2 billion fine for concealing defects from the public and safety officials. That action led to a big increase in the number of recalls issued by all automakers, making it harder for any vehicle owner to stay current with required recall work. BMW recently received a $40 million fine, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles received a roughly $100 million fine — both for issuing recalls too slowly.
- NHTSA launched a national recall awareness campaign to encourage consumers to take care of potentially life-threatening recalls, which are typically free to correct at a dealership.