Auto safety chief hits America's hot roads to push recall repairs

MIAMI (Reuters) - Under a blazing sun in a Florida college parking lot, employees of the U.S. government’s auto safety regulator, Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T and a tire industry trade group checked vehicles for recall notices, under-inflated tires and improperly installed child safety seats.

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Frustrated by the failure of many American motorists to take cars with safety defects to dealers for repairs, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind on Tuesday began a political campaign-style swing through southern states to push for better vehicle maintenance.

“Shaking hands and kissing babies: our version is checking VINs, tires and car seats,” Rosekind said in an interview at the tour’s second event in Orlando.

The first-of-its-kind nearly 1,500-mile, nine stop trip over five days in a rented bus wrapped in NHTSA logos and safety messages, will take Rosekind from Miami to Fort Worth, Texas during the hottest time of the year.

Heat and humidity elevate the risk that vehicle airbags equipped with aging inflators made by Takata Corp 7312.T could rupture and injure or kill occupants, the agency has found.

Automakers have recalled more than 100 million vehicles in the last two years in the United States. Consumers, however, have no legal obligation to get recalled vehicles fixed, and NHTSA has estimated that 20 to 30 per cent of recalled vehicles are not brought back to dealerships for free repairs.

About half of vehicles checked in Miami on Tuesday and about half of 300 vehicles checked during an event in July in Atlanta showed uncompleted recalls, Rosekind said.

Latin dance music played at an early morning safety check event on the Florida International University campus in Miami, drawing students, university employees and others.

Julian Martinez, 22, a graduate from the University of Chicago, drove in his mother’s 2008 Honda. NHTSA officials turned up an unrepaired Takata air bag inflator. “I had never even heard of Takata,” he said.

Ana Tronholm, 35, and her husband, Niclas Engene, 38, both biologists at FIU, brought their eight-month-old daughter and their Nissan Altima replete with several “Baby on Board” signs.

“Now with her I think we are more obsessed with car safety,” Tronholm said.

Many motorists are unaware of recalls, especially owners of older used cars who rarely visit dealerships. In August 2014, NHTSA’s website launched a search engine that allows motorists to check for uncompleted recalls by the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

Rosekind is prodding automakers to do more to track down motorists with unrepaired recalls. He expects to announce new efforts this fall by automakers to alert motorists.

Owners routinely fail to properly maintain their cars. About 30 percent of tires are under inflated and are linked to 200 deaths and 11,000 crashes a year, while 60 percent of car seats are not properly installed or are the wrong seat, NHTSA said.

Nearly 100 million Takata inflators have been declared unsafe worldwide, including 70 million in the United States from 17 automakers in the largest ever U.S. auto safety recall.

Through July 15, however, automakers have replaced only about 9.4 million Takata inflators in the country.

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Grant McCool