Mass. complaint turns into global recall

March 15, 2013, 7:48 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Arlington/Rehoboth, Mass.) - Carrie Carvalho will never forget Oct. 10, 2010. Not just because it was 10-10-10, but because it was the day she could have been killed when her Honda Pilot suddenly went haywire.

Her "significant other" Rob Marchant was at the wheel of the car in Concord, Mass., driving about 40 mph towards Route 2 to head home to Arlington, when suddenly the car’s brakes and steering seized up and the vehicle veered right off the road.

"The brakes engaged spontaneously, randomly, without warning," Carvalho recalled in an interview Friday, "making the car shudder and groan, and bringing the car to an immediate stop."

After waiting a few minutes, they tried starting the car again and continuing down the road – only to have it happen again.

"This was not only a risk of safety to us personally, but to anybody else that was on the road," who could have slammed into the back of the Pilot.

What followed was a weird odyssey as her Honda dealership first offered then balked at fixing the car, and as Carvalho began researching, she found dozens, ultimately hundreds, of complaints about similar problems with the electronic "vehicle stability assist" system on 2005 Pilots. The VSA system is intended to take over steering and brakes to keep the car from running off the road during a skid or a slide on snow.

Carvalho escalated her complaints to American Honda in California, and got what she considered to be a very strange response.

"I got a letter from their attorney saying they wanted a non-disclosure, and they would do a repair to the VSA system, but they would not warrant the repair," Carvalho said. (We’re omitting the name of the dealership from which she bought the car because we did not have time before this story was aired and published online to give them Carvalho’s series of events and get their response.)

For months, then years, Carvalho left the car parked next to her Arlington home -- terrified to drive the vehicle, and unwilling to agree to what she described as unreasonable conditions Honda wanted to put on trying to fix it. All the while, though, she kept making her $474 monthly payment on the car, she said. Honda specialists came once to take the car for a test drive and remove a part, she said.

Finally, last April, she did what only 6 people in America did all year: Formally petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate whether to order Honda to recall the vehicles. And she apparently won.

Wednesday, Honda issued a recall covering 138,000 vehicles in the U.S. – 250,000 worldwide – including 2005 Honda Pilots and 2005 Acura MDX’s.

"Honda has received several complaints about such malfunctions in these vehicles. No crashes or injuries have been reported related to this issue," Honda said in a statement posted on its HondaNews.com website. "If an electrical capacitor on the VSA control unit was damaged during manufacture, the VSA system could malfunction and apply a small amount of brake force for a fraction of a second, without any input by the driver. Further, if the driver applies the brakes during a VSA system malfunction, the amount of brake force applied could exceed the driver's intended input. In either instance, unexpected brake activation could increase the risk of a crash. To remedy this potential issue, Honda and Acura dealers will install a new electrical sub-harness, free of charge."

Carvalho said based on her research, she knows of one fatal crash and of other wrecks involving Pilots in the federal database that she believes should be investigated to see whether they possibly have anything to do with the vehicle-stability issue. She also disputes Honda's characterization that the problem exists for "a fraction of a second," saying the electronic malfunction that seized up her Pilot lasted considerably longer than that.

Honda spokesman Chris Martin said in a telephone interview he had no information about Carvalho’s car and told me Honda had been aware of "scattered reports" of VSA problems, but it was only in October 2012 that Honda was able to get a vehicle that exhibited the problem consistently – he said he did not know where in the country that vehicle was found or if it was Carvalho’s – and then decided this week to issue the recall notice.

Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., a nationally known expert on vehicle and product safety issues, said Carvalho was an extraordinarily rare example of a citizen who successfully uses a provision of federal law allowing a consumer complaint procedure to trigger a NHTSA investigation and recall.

"It comes down to this: The squeaky wheel gets greased, and Carrie Carvalho did a remarkably good job in getting the attention of the federal regulators," Kane said. "They should have been paying attention to this problem … It's very rare to see a consumer petition granted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- very rare."

Kane said Carvalho’s story – like the Toyota "sudden acceleration" recall controversy in 2009-10 – illustrates a huge and growing problem of cars being equipped with computerized, electronic control and safety systems that drivers can’t mechanically or physically override when they go haywire, and for which federal safety regulators lag far behind in establishing enforceable safety and performance standards.

It’s also a reminder that for anyone who’s bought a car that’s exhibiting life-threatening problems, it’s important to make a report on the NHTSA website, SaferCar.gov.

"You need to be reporting these problems to the government's website. It's really important," Kane said. "It may not ultimately lead to you getting a recall, but having that on the record certainly helps move things towards investigations and recalls" -– and provides information that professional safety advocates and determined citizens like Carvalho can use to figure out whether a given car’s problem is an anomaly, or evidence of a model-year-wide problem that may warrant a recall or recall investigation.

Carvalho feels gratified the system worked, curious to see whether she’ll get a recall notice from Honda, and is considering legal action to get Honda to take the car back and compensate her for 2½ years of payments on a car she’s considered unsafe to drive anywhere.

"The important thing," Carvalho said, "is that people will be safer, hopefully, with this repair."

With videographer Rich Mazzarella and post-production video editor T.J. Walsh.

Tags: massachusetts, Peter Howe, Arlington, Honda recall, 2005 Honda Pilot recall, 2005 Acura MDX, Carrie Carvalho, Rob Marchant
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