Local governments fix recalls, change policies after hundreds of unfixed safety recalls identified

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Tennessee and the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office are all reconsidering the way they monitor the safety of the cars, trucks and SUVs their employees use after a Community Watchdog investigation identified hundreds of incomplete safety recalls on government vehicles, most of them police cars.

We requested the VIN numbers of government vehicles and then one-by-one ran them through the federal government’s recall tracker and found hundreds of recalls, some going back years, that warned of air bag problems, fires and power loss.

In the months since we alerted the agencies about the problem, they’ve fixed more than 100 of those recalls.

Kingsport Assistant City Manager Ryan McReynolds said the city learned about an air bag recall for 32 of its police cars from us.

“You all had made us aware before our manufacturers did,” McReynolds said. “It’s eye opening to know the lag when recalls occur and when the customer, who is us, are made notice. We’ll be working each of those vehicles in.”

Over at the city garage in Johnson City, Johnson City Fleet Management Director Tim Henley shared a similar response about some of Johnson City’s unfixed recalls.

“Some of the ones we were not aware of,” Henley said.

“Why wouldn’t you be aware of those?” we asked.

“We just hadn’t received the notice at that time,” Henley replied.

Using public records, we identified more than 300 incomplete recalls in the region’s largest government fleets. At least 140 of those recalls were linked to air bag problems, more than 50 were at risk of possible fires and that’s not including some linked to possible vehicle shutdowns as well.

Some, like an issue with a spare tire jack that drivers don’t actually use in Kingsport, McReynolds said the city knew about and is not going to fix.

“There are some recalls we’ll just monitor,” McReynolds said.

Other recalls, like possible damaged wires in Johnson City, Henley said the city is just going to keep an eye on.

“We inspected the wire. If it needed repair, we had it repaired. If it didn’t, we monitored it,” Henley said.

In addition, there were other recalls agencies said they were trying to schedule to get fixed or were waiting on parts.

“A lot of our officers have gone to these dealerships and asked them to fix the recall, but the dealerships don’t have the parts,” Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kristen Quon said. “They might have gone a couple months ago. That means they should probably go back this month and try again.”

Johnson City found out about 15 of its recalls from us, including several linked to air bag issues going back multiple years.

“Which of those recalls do you wish you had known about sooner?” we asked.

“Oh, the air bags most definitely, because that’s a safety issue,” Henley said.

Two other Johnson City recalls deal with the possible loss of lights while driving, including one that dates back to 2001. Johnson City’s since fixed the oldest recall.

“The recalls go back more than a decade ago in some cases. Why weren’t they fixed?” we asked.

“We didn’t receive the recalls,” Henley replied. “Fleet management’s policy is if we receive a recall, we address it.”

We also identified an incomplete 2004 recall for a Bristol, Tennessee Parks and Recreation transport van that at one time used to carry senior citizens. That recall warned about a risk of an under-hood fire. Bristol has since fixed the recall.

Christopher Basso works for Carfax. The company collects vehicle history information. Basso said of the 63 million unfixed recalls in the United States, roughly 1.5 million are in Tennessee and he said that puts both people in those cars and the ones driving alongside them at risk.

“Letting a recall go unfixed only increases the risk of that recall failing,” Basso said. “People categorize them as major or minor when in fact these are all safety recalls and no matter how big or small the issue is, consider the fact that it affects the safety of your vehicle and that even the smallest thing could impact one of the safety features of your vehicle.”

While the government agencies don’t intend to fix all of the recalls, choosing instead to just keep an eye on some of them, they have made repairs to more than 100 others in the three months since we alerted them of the problem. Johnson City, Washington and Sullivan counties, both Bristols and Kingsport have either fixed, scheduled or are working with the dealer to get parts on dozens of recalls.

McReynolds said since Takata is phasing out its recall over several years and only targeting older cars that are the most likely to be exposed to hot and humid conditions first, like those in Florida and Alabama, that’s probably why some agencies found out about that recall from us.

In the future, that kind of delay shouldn’t be a problem for many of the agencies. Henley said Johnson City is changing its process, so it no longer relies solely on recall notices. Instead, Henley said employees will regularly go to the same website we used to manually plug in VIN numbers and check recalls.

“We’ll have to go to the website and run some numbers every now and then,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea to do that probably on a semi-annual basis.”

McReynolds said Kingsport may do the same.

“That is definitely something we’re considering and we attribute it to your all’s work on this project,” McReynolds said.

Meanwhile, Bristol, Tennessee is increasing its oversight so that Public Works checks with each department to make sure the recalls are completed, Bristol Public Works Director Tim Beavers said.

The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office is getting its captains involved.

“From the ones I’ve talked to, they know about it and they’ve gone to the dealership maybe a few months ago and tried to get it fixed and now it’s just kind of on the back burner for them and now the captains are going to step in and say, ‘Ok, you really do need to get this fixed,'” Quon said.

As part of our investigation, we identified pending recalls on our news trucks too and made the appropriate repairs.

You can do the same for your car at safercar.gov.

A spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said updated mailing information is critical to ensure people and government agencies receive recall notices, but added people shouldn’t just rely on the mail to deliver their recall alerts.

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