By Jennifer Geiger on July 18, 2014
It's pretty much impossible to go a day without yet another vehicle safety recall; GM's wide-spread ignition defect woes and the ever-expanding, multi-automaker Takata airbag recall continue to grab headlines. With so much recall news, it's easy to get jaded, but they address dangerous problems and you can be the first step in making sure all vehicles stay safe. Often, recall investigations are launched after a vehicle owner files a complaint.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration receives more than 40,000 consumer complaints each year — and looks into all of them, said Kathryn Henry, media relations for the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA.
"Vehicle safety is a top priority for the department and over the past seven years, NHTSA safety defect investigations resulted in 929 recalls involving more than 55 million vehicles and motor-vehicle equipment, which has helped us reduce vehicle fatalities to historic lows," Henry said.
Here's how to file a vehicle safety complaint with NHTSA and how your complaint can become a recall:
Step 1: If you have a safety concern about your vehicle, its equipment, tires or a child- safety seat, contact the Office of Defects Investigation, NHTSA's investigative arm. To lodge a complaint online, visit www.safercar.gov or call 888-327-4236 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Eastern time) Monday through Friday. You can also download the SaferCar mobile phone app.
Step 2: Have your vehicle's information handy; you'll need to submit its year, make, model and odometer mileage as well as its vehicle identification number. The VIN is often found on the base of the windshield or the doorjamb.
Step 3: Next, you'll need to explain the issue in an incident information form, which covers the incident date as well as details about any crashes, fires or injuries. You'll also need to identify the part you think is responsible for the problem and the vehicle's speed at the time of the incident.
Step 4: Your report will appear in NHTSA's database. The database is public, but NHTSA removes all information that identifies you personally. Investigators review each complaint and, if warranted, the Office of Defects Investigation will open an inquiry to determine if a safety defect trend exists; you might be contacted by an investigator to clarify the information submitted.
Step 5: Before becoming a recall, the investigation goes through two phases. During the Preliminary Evaluation phase, investigators obtain data from the manufacturer including complaints, crashes, injuries, warranty claims, modifications and parts sales. Investigators close PEs because no safety defect was found or because the automaker decides to conduct a recall.
Step 6: If more analysis is needed, the investigation is upgraded to the Engineering Analysis phase. Investigators build off the PE's data and add detailed tests and surveys by obtaining more information from both automakers and parts suppliers. If the agency decides a defect exists, it gives the automaker a final opportunity to address the issue and present new analysis or data. It can also choose to send a Recall Request Letter to the manufacturer.
Step 7: Once a recall is issued, you will receive a notice in the mail regarding the problem and the solution. Dealers must fix the defect for free.
Automakers can also initiate a recall before the government gets involved, but consumers stepping up and identifying issues plays a big role in ensuring manufacturers continue to make safe vehicles. You might think your one complaint doesn't stand a chance in a database filled with problems, but as Henry explains, NHTSA continually and carefully monitors new and previously submitted consumer complaints, data and other resources to identify defect trends.
"This is the agency's routine procedure for keeping our eyes and ears open to spot trends that may indicate a safety defect," she said.
Assistant Managing Editor Jennifer Geiger is a reviewer, car-seat technician and mom of three. She wears a lot of hats, many of them while driving a minivan. Email Jennifer