Graco has announced a recall of 3.7 million child car seats because “numerous” harness buckles have reportedly jammed when crusted with food or dried liquids. Although it’s one of the biggest recalls ever, a federal agency says it’s not extensive enough and believes the firm should recall 1.8 million more units, creating a potential public relations nightmare for a company selling products that need to be perceived as above reproach.
Adding to the intrigue, Graco says it will also replace the buckle on any of the seven models of rear-facing infant seats with similar latches that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] has asked it to recall, report CNN’s Greg Botelho and Mike Ahlers; it just won’t do so the way the government agency wants it to.
“They are not officially recalled; however, customers experiencing any difficulty with their harness buckle can still get a new one,” Graco spokeswoman Ashley Mowrey tells Botelho and Ahlers. Owners who didn't register their seats but want to replace the buckles can call the company's consumer hotline at 800-345-4109 or visit its website.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mowrey pointed out that the seat containing the infant could be detached from the base if the buckles jammed.
“In documents sent to NHTSA, Graco estimated that less than 1% of the seats involved in the recall have had buckles that were stuck or difficult to unlatch,” the AP reports on NBCNews.com. “NHTSA, in documents filed last year, said it received 80 complaints about the seats.”
“In a scathing letter to the company, NHTSA said it is ‘completely foreseeable that children will eat or drink while seated in their car seat,’” reports NPR’s Eyder Peralta in a blog post. Debris and liquids, the NHTSA argues, “should not inhibit or prevent the buckle from its intended function as a ‘quick release device.’”
"NHTSA's investigation will remain open pending its evaluation of the Graco recall and until the agency's consideration of the review of the seven remaining seat models is completed," the agency said in a statement cited byUSA Today’s Jayne O’Donnell.
“That means the agency and company will continue to negotiate on whether a recall is warranted for the SnugRide infant seats,” reports O’Donnell. “NHTSA threatened civil penalties and told the company to remove statements that underplayed the seriousness from public documents.”
“Since this investigation is not related to crash protection, the affected car seats should still be used until the repair kits are available, but repairs should be made as soon as possible,” child safety advocate Joseph Colella tells O’Donnell.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, tells the New York Times’ Christopher Jensen and Jaclyn Trop that the public disagreement and threat of legal action are rare and “shows a serious dispute,” he said.
In a response to the NHTSA, Graco said that the problem was “not safety related,” according to the ODI [Office of Defects Investigation] Recall Request Letter to Graco posted on the agency’s website, but rather that “its customers are experiencing a ‘perception’ and a ‘frustration’ issue with unlatching their car seat buckles.”
The document goes on to report that “Graco states that the ‘ledge’ of the sliding button on the Signature button and the push location on the QT buckle, as well as consumers purportedly using ‘improper unbuckling procedures’ on the QT and QT3 contribute to the perception and frustration experienced by its customers.”
“Simply put, our brand is our promise to our customer. It tells them what they can expect from our products and services, and it differentiates our offering from our competitors’,” reads a statement on the Graco website.
But as political operative Lee Atwater famously understood—and exploited to his candidates’ advantage—“perception is reality.” Graco surely knows this. How the perception needle moves, and what Graco does to move it in its direction in the months ahead, will be instructive to watch.