Vehicle fires can be terrifying for vehicle occupants and other road users, some of whom are seriously or fatally injured as a result of such fires. In 2015 there was a sudden increase in vehicle fires involving Vauxhall Zafira B models. Vauxhall was too slow to begin a full investigation into the fires affecting Zafira B models and too quick to attribute the problem to improper and unauthorised repair. Vauxhall does not appear to have grasped the seriousness of the issue, placing the blame on third parties and addressing the problem, in the first instance, through a non-coded action rather than a recall. A fire cannot occur in a Zafira’s heating and ventilation system solely because the resistor controlling the speed of the blower motor has been improperly repaired; another fault, such as corrosion of the blower motor due to water ingress, would also need to be present.
Vauxhall has been reluctant to accept the part that corrosion in blower motors in the affected models has played in causing the fires. Vauxhall’s initial investigation did not identify all the failings that could cause a fire in a Model B Zafira’s heating and ventilation system. This led to fires occurring in vehicles that had been returned to their original equipment condition following the initial recall. Vauxhall were slow to notify the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) about these fires.
After the initial recall Vauxhall should have acted more quickly to address the problems once it became clear that all the causes of the fires affecting the heating and ventilation system had not been found. Its initial recall reduced the risk of the fire, but owners were left thinking their cars were safe when the reality was that some were at risk.
Vauxhall’s decision to continue to let people drive affected cars once it knew that cars that had already been successfully recalled still caught fire amounts to a reckless disregard for safety. This is particularly damning given its admission that it should have notified customers earlier. The DVSA needs to show how it has assured itself that the remedial action taken by Vauxhall has been effective in eliminating the risk of fires in the heating and ventilation system of Model B Zafiras, given that Vauxhall was over optimistic in thinking it had tackled the root cause with the first recall.
The Government should work with the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, the Retail Motor Industry Federation and its associations, and other relevant trade associations to see how the reporting of potential safety defects can be improved. It should ensure the motor industry and the insurance industry are working together to eliminate any barriers that prevent the full and proper investigation of any potential safety defect in a vehicle. The Government should consider the steps it can take to improve traceability and ensure a greater number of owners comply with recalls; motorists’ contact with the Government’s motoring agencies offer a number of opportunities to do so.
We welcome the moves that have been made by the DVSA to strengthen the Code of Practice on Vehicle Safety Defects and Recalls. We believe that the Department for Transport and the DVSA should keep under review the question of whether the Code needs to be strengthened in respect of the obligation placed on manufacturers to inform their suppliers. Ministers should satisfy themselves that the arrangements for dealing with parts suppliers that are in place are sufficient to ensure vehicle safety in the event that a defect was found in a part used in a number of different makes and models.
Despite Vauxhall blaming the fires on unauthorised repair by third parties, no effort was made to find out where such dangerous practices were carried out. The Department should consider how best the safety implications of improper and dangerous repair can be addressed. The DVSA should do more to use its network of garages to collect and collate information on vehicle safety issues.
The DVSA lacks enforcement powers. The Government should consider bringing forward legislative proposals to give the DVSA the enforcement powers it needs to compel manufacturers to act, should it need to do so. Such powers would sit behind the voluntary Code and enable the DVSA to act where it found a manufacturer was unwilling or too slow to act. The DVSA should have commissioned its own independent testing once fires in successfully recalled vehicles called into question Vauxhall’s claim to have found the root cause of the fires. In future, it should be more willing to make greater use of independent testing; vehicle manufacturers should continue to bear the costs of such testing.
25 April 2017