The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov) is responsible for investigating possible design and manufacturing defects in the vehicles we drive. Most often, consumers complain to NHTSA, and after several people complain about the same mechanical or safety related problem, NHTSA will investigate the issue to determine whether the consumer or the manufacturer is at fault.
If the manufacturer is found to be responsible for a serious defect, a recall is issued. A recall requires the manufacturer to send an official notice to owners of the vehicles found to be defective. More often than not, only a portion of the production run of a certain make, model, and year vehicle is affected by a recall. For example, we ran a search for recalls pertaining to our long-term 1997 Toyota Camry at the end of last year. According to NHTSA, notification began October 1, 1997, of a recall involving the brake vacuum hose. The recall covers cars registered in 19 northern states, including Colorado where our long- term Camry is plated. Within 30 seconds we were able to get the NHTSA Campaign ID number (97V156000), a report on the exact problem and the symptoms which indicate that the vehicle may have the defective part, the number of vehicles affected (18,746), and an explanation about what the dealer is required to do to fix the problem. We also got the proper phone numbers for both Toyota and the NHTSA Auto Safety Hotline in the event that the dealer is uncooperative regarding the brake system fix. NOTE: Since Edmund's has not been notified by Toyota that a problem exists, it is safe to assume that our car is not one of the 18,746 vehicles affected by the recall.
A technical service bulletin (TSB) is issued by the manufacturer. More commonly known as a "secret warranty," a TSB is distributed to all of the manufacturer's dealerships and it often instructs service personnel to fix problems covered by the TSB free of charge, but only if the repair is necessary to resolve a customer complaint. TSBs are also issued regarding updated part installation and repair instructions, among other items. For example, a search of the NHTSA database for TSBs on our long- term Camry yielded a list of 14 items at the end of 1997. Only five of them pertained to minor defects that a consumer might complain about, ranging from squeaks and rattles to the way the carpeting fits in the passenger compartment. Our long-termer suffers none of the listed maladies. The other TSBs dealt with notification about parts availability or installation, as well as updated techniques for troubleshooting issues involving the Bosch anti-lock braking system and integrated rear window antenna.
Below you will find a link to the NHTSA website. There you can search vast databases of recalls and TSBs. You can lodge a complaint about your car with NHTSA. They have information about crash tests, child safety seats, and airbags. There's even Safety City, a child- oriented learning area starring Vince and Larry, the dummies from the television commercials that promote seat belt use. In addition to edmund.com, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov is without question one of the most important web sites for automobile owners to visit. When making any trip to the dealer regarding a recall or a TSB, you should carry a printout from the NHTSA web site. It will be the big stick that allows you to speak softly with service personnel.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.