Mazda Recalls 215,000 Cars for Power Steering Problem

Mazda is recalling about 215,000 of its 2007-9 Mazda 3 and Mazda 5’s because of a steering problem that could increase the chance of a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency says the problem is a loss of power assist which reduces “the driver’s ability to steer the vehicle as typically expected.”

The recall comes about a year after Mazda started fixing vehicles in Japan for the same problem.

In a report to the safety agency filed on Monday, Mazda says it began investigating the problem two years ago. The automaker says by July 2009 it knew the problem was that rust was forming inside the high-pressure pipe on the power steering system, and particles were entering the motorized power steering pump, causing it to shut down to prevent the pump from overheating.

In Japan, “due to a high occurrence rate,” Mazda said, it began that year what amounted to a recall, which it described to N.H.T.S.A. as “an improvement campaign to repair vehicles.”

But because the “occurrence rate was low” in the United States, instead of recalling the vehicles, Mazda decided instead to “continue monitoring” and issue a technical service bulletin to dealers telling them how to fix the problem.

Last June, N.H.T.S.A. became concerned after receiving 33 complaints from owners of the Mazda 3, claiming they had intermittent steering problems. The agency opened a safety investigation.

In Monday’s report to the safety agency Mazda says it finally decided to recall the vehicles but it insisted the loss of power steering posed “no unreasonable safety risk.” Under federal regulations automakers must inform the safety agency within five days of learning of a safety defect or face fines.

In May, N.H.T.S.A. opened an investigation into whether Toyota violated that regulation by conducting a recall in Japan in 2004 but not immediately recalling trucks with the same problem in the United States. That investigation is not yet finished.

In April, Toyota agreed to pay a $16.4 million fine after N.H.T.S.A. accused it of failing to promptly notify regulators about a “dangerous sticky pedal defect.” Toyota denied any wrongdoing and said it was paying the fine to avoid “a protracted dispute and possible litigation.”

Currently the maximum fine for failing to promptly recall vehicles is $15 million adjusted for inflation. But the amount could increase under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, which is before Congress. One provision would allow a fine up to $300 million for failing to promptly notify the agency of a safety problem. Automakers are fighting the increase.

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