A Victory for Consumers! Online Safety Data Will Save You Money (and Maybe Your Life)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 04, 2016

How many Car Talk listeners have spent time on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recalls website? Is that one hand there in the back?

Now, we can stipulate that Car Talk’s audience is an underachieving bunch, but the fact is that most Americans get their safety bulletins second or third hand. Maybe your brother-in-law mentions they’re recalling Ford F-150s because the dome light shorts out.

Even fewer listeners spend their time poring through the files at the Department of Transportation (DOT). But that’s what you had to do if you wanted to be fully informed on the latest vehicle technical service bulletins and information sent to dealers about defects.

Now that’s all over, and consumers have won a big victory concerning their rights to know. The DOT and NHTSA have agreed to post all of their communications, even material that’s not strictly about safety. Why should you care about this? Read on.

The DOT/NHTSA change of heart came about via a lawsuit from the effective Center for Auto Safety. Its director, Clarence Ditlow, told me, “This is all about money and who pays for manufacturers’ mistakes. Armed with technical service bulletins, consumers can get manufacturers to pay.”

Here’s a real-life case Ditlow supplied. Honda issued a technical service bulletin about a defective front balancer shaft oil seal in 1990s models. “When it fails, it fails catastrophically,” Ditlow said. “All the oil leaks out, and in 15 seconds the engine will seize.” The service bulletin said a newly designed seal was available for installation at Honda’s cost, but since it wasn’t a safety recall you’d have to be in-the-know to get the work done. Crazy, huh?

NHTSA has posted some bulletins, Ditlow said. “They’ve posted them when they’re part of an investigation,” he said. “But what goes up is relatively minimal.” And it has to be “safety related.” So a failing engine isn’t a safety issue unless there’s some reason to believe its going to leave the car stranded in the middle of the road, presenting a hazard to traffic.

Ford had a problem with transmission splines, which would shear and leave the car immobile. That was judged a safety issue, and a recall was issued. But if the car goes into a “limp home” mode, it’s not considered unsafe and the information hasn’t been posted.

Clarence Ditlow the consumer watchdog who's long headed the Center for Auto Safety. We all owe him a debt for this victory on the consumer's right to know. (Courtesy of Clarence Ditlow)
Clarence Ditlow the consumer watchdog who's long headed the Center for Auto Safety. We all owe him a debt for this victory on the consumer's right to know. (Courtesy of Clarence Ditlow)

Ditlow said, “We have already talked to the Justice Department and plan to put our lawsuit on hold to see if they meet the deadline they discussed with us—two months for all safety documents, and four months for all documents.”

Incidentally, the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) required automakers to:

…give the Secretary of Transportation, and the Secretary shall make available on a publicly accessible Internet website, a true or representative copy of each communication to the manufacturer’s dealers or to owners or purchasers of a motor vehicle or replacement equipment produced by the manufacturer about a defect or noncompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter in a vehicle or equipment that is sold or serviced.

The interpretation of what is safety related or not could drag on for a while. It’s far better for NHTSA to simply post everything, and let us consumers sort it out. We all owe a debt to the Center for Auto Safety for bringing on this great example of government in the sunshine. Now let's not be lazy and actually take advantage of what Ditlow calls "a bonanza for consumers."

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