BMW is recalling 241,000 vehicles as the result of a Texas man’s request that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigate what he thought was a safety problem.
The recall covers 3 Series sedans from 2002-5, which may experience failure of their rear tail lamps, brake lights and turn signals. The 3 Series wagon was not mentioned in the recall.
In March 2009, Mark Peters, a commercial airline pilot from Hurst, Tex., filed a defect petition with the safety agency, asking it to investigate repeated failures of the rear lamps on models like his 2002 330i. He claimed that the wiring harness and connector were prone to overheating—and that BMW knew of the problem but refused to help owners.
“BMW’s casual treatment of this serious safety-related design defect is unacceptable,” he wrote.
In a telephone interview with The New York Times on Friday, Mr. Peters said he viewed BMW’s position as “kind of a big injustice” that sufficiently upset him that he filed the defect petition.
Anyone can file such a petition, but the agency may not agree that an investigation is warranted. Mr. Peters was not expecting much. “I assumed I was tilting at windmills, frankly,” he said.
In August 2009, however, the agency notified Mr. Peters that it would grant his request by opening a preliminary evaluation. In December 2009, the agency said documents it received from BMW showed additional reason for concern, which led it to upgrade the investigation to a more serious engineering analysis.
Responding to the agency’s requests for information, BMW said it first became aware of heat-related failures in 2004. The automaker sent dealers a technical service bulletin in 2007 advising technicians to check for heat-related damage in an electrical connector involving the rear lights.
At the time, BMW said that even if the other lights were to fail, a trunk-mounted stop lamp would work. Therefore, it considered the problem one of customer satisfaction, not safety, it informed the agency.
The agency disagreed and continued to pursue the issue, asking for more information and meetings with BMW. On August 25 of this year, the automaker formally notified the agency that it would recall the vehicles. BMW said it was not aware of any accidents related to the problem.
Mr. Peters said he was stunned to get a call from N.H.T.S.A. official recently saying BMW would be recalling the vehicles.
“I was just very happy that occasionally you can actually get results,” he said. “It can be David and Goliath, and David can occasionally have an impact.”
Karen Aldana, an agency spokeswoman, could not immediately say how often a defect petition has resulted in a recall.
BMW also told the agency that it would not reimburse owners who had repairs performed before Dec. 18, 2009. Asked why the reimbursements wouldn’t go through to those owners, Monty Roberts, a BMW spokesman, wrote in an e-mail: “BMWNA has complied with all regulatory and procedural requirements according to N.H.T.S.A. Defect Petition No. DP09-002 as agreed and is in full compliance, which includes the reimbursement process as agreed.” Mr. Roberts did not respond to a request for a clearer explanation.
BMW described the recall as voluntary, but once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it has no choice but to inform the NHTSA of its plan for a recall. That notification must occur within five business days or the automaker could face civil fines.—Paul DucheneBack to News