by Sandi Soendker, Managing Editor
On March 22, Volvo Trucks North America Inc. announced what they call a “voluntarily non-compliance notification” with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding Volvo trucks shipped with inaccurate front axle weight ratings. While this line seems a bit vague, it basically means recall.
There’s quite a story that leads up to this “sort-of recall” and while it’s hard to say where it began, a good enough place to start is with two OOIDA members who bought a truck that became a nightmare. Two and a half years ago, Nick and Chee Barber, owner-operators from Minot, ND, bought one of the trucks described in the March 22 Volvo “recall.” The Barbers claimed no matter what they did, their new truck was overweight on the front axles. In order to fix it, the dealer authorized another shop to chop 16 inches off the frame and slide the fifth wheel back. All this despite Nick Barber’s objections.
“We paid $127,000 and we feel the truck should be able to operate in all states,” says Chee Barber. “Even after they chopped it, it wasn’t legal in nine or 10 states. The dealer just told us not to buy fuel in those states and slide the fifth wheel.” The Barbers ended up suing Volvo Trucks North America Inc., Ford Motor Credit and the Grande Truck Center in San Antonio, TX. All the Barbers asked for in the lawsuit was a truck that was legal in all states. But a federal judge in San Antonio was convinced by Volvo that this chopping was normal warranty work and the truck was not defective. The Barbers lost the case.
Meanwhile, at headquarters in Grain Valley, MO, OOIDA had been documenting member complaints over Volvo front-end problems and the number of case files was growing. Some of those complaints were similar to the Barbers’, so Nick (being a member) collaborated with the association. He and 13 members plus several more complainants Barber recruited from his own investigations provided NHTSA with their fully documented complaints. In his own complaint, Nick included documents gathered in his own suit against Volvo. One piece of information gleaned from the depositions no doubt fell like thunder on the ears of NHTSA. That was the transcript of e-mail traffic within the Volvo company that discussed Nick Barber, his truck and the problem.
The e-mail, dated July 2, 1998, is addressed to Rick Keene, service support for Volvo, and appears to be from another Volvo service representative named Dennis Talentowski. The e-mail reads, “we need to get this guy (Barber) on the road and work marketing later.” On the same day, another e-mail from Volvo service rep Ron Oster reads, “I agree that this is getting out of hand and from all my conversations with Rick in the last three days, it is apparent that it is largely being dealt with only after the fact. It is time that it is solved before we build any more… In the meantime, this poor slob is sitting while we play politics?”
Barber is convinced that when NHTSA read this e-mail, it compelled them to lean on Volvo.
“We were quick to react” says Volvo
On March 22, 2001, Volvo, in a notice filed with federal regulators, said it was recalling 1,577 heavy-duty trucks built between November 1997 and August 1999. Volvo says the recall had no connection to the OOIDA petition to NHTSA.
The company says the problem stemmed from incorrect tire rating information used to calculate the weight ratings. “When operating bobtail (without a trailer) with full fuel tanks and two occupants with an allowance for personal belongings, the actual gross axle weight may exceed the stated rating found on the weight certification label,” the company said in its notice to NHTSA. The company said it will either replace the weight certification label with a correct one, replace front axle tires, rims or tie rod tubes, or replace or relocate fuel tanks to bring the trucks into compliance with federal standards.
“It basically says the trucks were not labeled correctly,” says Chee Barber. “If that’s true and it’s just the label, why was 16 inches cut off the truck? And the remedy outlined by Volvo? This is the exact thing that Nick originally asked them to do.”
“Let’s call a horse a horse and a cow a cow and let’s call an engineering problem what it really is,” says Nick Barber. “This is not a labeling problem.”
Christopher W. Patterson, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing for Volvo Trucks NA, made one particular comment regarding the non-compliance notice that vexes the Barbers. “Once we discovered this labeling issue, we were quick to react and work with NHTSA,” said Patterson in a March 30 press release from Volvo.
“Quick to react?” says Chee Barber. “We filed our lawsuit in August of 1998! The very existence of our lawsuit defies that.”
The big picture
While the Barbers were deciding to appeal the decision of the federal court in San Antonio, a larger situation continued to develop at OOIDA headquarters that included hundreds of frustrated Volvo owners/members who desperately insisted their trucks were unsafe for operation. As of Feb. 1, 2001, OOIDA reported 185 documented cases and more than 50 yet to be verified. Still, even the worst of those cases failed to motivate Volvo to address the problems.
In March, Volvo’s refusal to follow through on their promised investigations prompted OOIDA to file a document with NHTSA petitioning the administration to scrutinize the defects as reported (see sidebar).
Paula Kahre of Las Vegas, NV, is one of those documented cases. Her WIA64TTES Volvo condo has an extreme vibration problem. She has never been able to find a shop that can correct it. “You have to understand that this constant, extreme vibration causes wear and tear on the whole truck,” says Kahre, a professional trucker since 1986, “and premature wear on not just the front steer tires but all suspension parts. My truck shook so bad that a $72-an-hour Volvo-authorized repair shop could not install a three-cent supposed self-locking nut to stay on. One day, I was on I-65 north of Nashville passing the second of two semis on a hill when my rear air bags completely dumped instantly. The nut had vibrated off and the bolt had come loose from the armature, causing all the air pressure in the rear end suspension air bags to deflate. The U-joint knuckle of the front rear axle was actually dragging the ground. The nose of the trailer was down and dragging the landing gear. All this at 70 mph with an SUV right on my back door, with a Pete on his back door.”
With a death grip on the wheel, she fought the truck to the side of the road. “It was an act of God that people did not die that day,” she says. “People have no idea how stressful it is to drive a truck that does not handle or react the way it should. In a blink of an eye, the truck’s failure to perform as it is designed to do could kill you. And others.”
The files collected and documented by OOIDA are full of incidents that could have resulted in catastrophic wrecks. Kahre says she has no doubts there are accidents not yet reported and probably even fatalities. “I am certain there’s been fatalities, because with so many of these documented problems are incidents of loss of control. If I had killed myself and others in my incident, investigators would have called it fatigue-related and that would have been it.”
Similarly, it could have been a bad scene for Mr. and Mrs. Harold Hains of Cassville, MO, who narrowly escaped a bad accident when their Volvo’s steering wheel locked up as they were rolling down an off-ramp.
Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Grattafiori of Brighton, MI, reported that while pulling forward in a line at a container port, the gear box of their Volvo truck “popped’’ out onto the ground, along with all of the power steering fluid. The truck lost its steering. “Thank God it didn’t happen coming down Jelico Mountain,’’ say the Grattafioris.
Joan and Ray Kasicki of Cleveland, OH, reported that when they were in Boston and backing into a dock, the steering column fell into their lap. “The steering wheel bracket that holds the tilt and telescoping wheel to the dash board broke,’’ says Ray Kasicki, OOIDA board member. “What would have happened if this would have broken when we were driving down the road?’’ Kasicki points out that these problems are not due to maintenance practices. “When you have a truck that has problems that the dealer can’t fix and yet you know something’s wrong, it makes you very serious about your maintenance.”
William Kessel of Buffalo, NY, reported, “once all four bolts broke on me while I was pulling a … load, and the front rear axle came forward and almost killed me.”
Other axle failures have resulted in Volvos losing a wheel during operation. Thomas Pitts reported that, after complaining of a shimmy in the front end of his truck, the dealer paid for the front-end work. “(Two) tie rod ends, front-end alignment, rear axle alignment, plus two tires. Just over two months later, the left side steering, rim and hub came off without warning at 70 mph.’’
Andy Bergman of West Olive, MI, experienced the same problem. He wrote that his “right front hub sheared right off the axle so that one minute I was driving along and the next minute I saw my tire rolled off towards the shoulder with the lug nuts still securely fastened and the right side of my axle slammed down on the roadway.’’
By far, the most frequently cited problem, reported in 160 complaints, is the premature tire wear. Volvo owners report that the life of their tires is one-third to one-half that of tires on other trucks. Other complaints range from suspension problems, transmission, axle, steering, electrical problems and more.
“These reports speak for themselves and more than form a sufficient basis for the initiation of a NHTSA safety defect investigation,” says OOIDA President Jim Johnston. “The hazardous situations reported to OOIDA by Volvo owners demonstrate a serious risk of injury and death to not only truckdrivers, but to anyone walking, riding or driving on the highway.”
Staff writer Donna Carlson and senior editor Ruth Jones contributed to this article.
OOIDA petitions NHTSA to investigate Volvo truck defects
On March 21, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, on behalf of its members, filed a petition with the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requesting the DOT and NHTSA investigate defects in Volvo trucks as reported by 185 owners of more than 260 Volvo Class 8 trucks. OOIDA says the petition was filed after numerous attempts to communicate with Volvo Trucks regarding the problems failed to yield results.
The petition presents evidence that Volvo heavy-duty trucks manufactured between 1989 and 2000 may contain defects that pose the potential for loss of life and serious injury. OOIDA has collected complaints and evaluated evidence since 1999. Federal regulations require NHTSA to grant or deny petitions such as OOIDA’s within 120 days.
The vast majority of complaints concerned the front end of the truck. Sixty-seven complaints reported the incidence of severe vibration, shaking and noise centered in the front of the truck. Seventeen complaints reported trouble steering and controlling the truck. Several Volvo owners have discovered that their truck is overweight on the steering axle, even when not hitched to a loaded trailer.
Many other problems were reported that may be caused by the truck’s shaking and vibrating. These include various parts wearing out prematurely, various parts failing and falling off the truck, and the electrical system malfunctioning. With regard to the truck’s body, windows have blown out, and doors and hoods have failed to shut properly. With one driver, a steering wheel fell off while at a loading dock. Whether these truck components may be defective themselves, or their failure may be a result of a chain reaction derived from a larger problem is one of the questions OOIDA asks NHTSA to investigate.
Some Volvo owners reported only their mechanical problems; others described incidents in the operation of their truck that created hazardous conditions on the road or highway. In the petition, OOIDA excerpts comments made by Volvo mechanics and dealers to Volvo owners. These comments demonstrate that the problems reported are not isolated incidents but have been experienced by other Volvo owners.
In a March 30 Volvo press release, Volvo’s executive vice president of Sales and Marketing Christopher W. Patterson states, “We’ve been working on their issues with OOIDA for some time now.” OOIDA President Jim Johnston says the truck manufacturer has not been working with the trucking association at all.
“Obviously, Volvo has not read our petition to NHTSA,” says Johnston. “Their failure to address the problems we’ve told them about is what prompted OOIDA to petition NHTSA in the first place. If Volvo had been working with us, we would not have been compelled to file the petition.”