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Are Consumers the Last to Know About Auto Defects?

The McClellan Law Firm

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is doing more today than ever before to make auto defects known to consumers, it can take months, even years, before an auto defect report reaches the public.

Take, for example, Hyundai's Veracruz and Santa Fe SUVs. The auto manufacturer recalled some of those vehicles in 2011 for defective air bags. Yet, the recall didn't happen until 8,000 consumers brought warranty claims and 16 consumers complained to the NHTSA. Similarly, a potential tire defect in Ford's Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers killed 375 Americans between 2002 and 2009 but the safety issues were never made public.

While the public can learn which auto companies have received complaints and which are subject to NHTSA investigations, they must often submit a Freedom of Information Act request first. Informal investigations, which are more common now than ten years ago, happen outside of the public's purview and can last for months before a defect is confirmed and the public is made aware. According to the NHTSA, the agency must have a reasonable belief that there is a defect before it opens a public investigation.

While we don't want to unjustifiably accuse auto manufacturers of defects that do not exist in a majority of their vehicles, public safety is not a moot point. Shouldn't the public know if a car or car part may be defective, if just to drive more cautiously while an investigation is ongoing? The NHTSA disagrees that all investigation data should be public, arguing that "consumers wouldn't have any idea what to trust when it comes to the safety of their vehicles."

It is, as it always has been, up to consumers to bring forth complaints when there are problems with their cars. When those problems lead to injuries, consumers must hold automakers accountable through auto defect litigation. The NHTSA is working to keep us all safe, but it is up to each of us to ensure they -- and the public -- know when defects occur.