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Do You Think Your Vehicle Has a Defect? 

Here's what to do if you think your vehicle has a defect.  For information about specific defects or recalls, click here.

Step One: Fix the Problem

If you believe your vehicle has a defect and the problem may be dangerous to you or others, it is important to fix it immediately—even if the manufacturer is not sponsoring a recall.  Unfortunately, the up-front costs will be yours to pay, but you may be able to be reimbursed for these costs if a recall is initiated.  It is possible to obtain reimbursement for repairs made on recalled parts prior to the initiation of the recall, but reimbursement is only offered for repairs made within a designated period of time.  Make sure to keep all documentation of the repairs you have made, and read the reimbursement information below for more details.

Step Two: File a Complaint

Recalls are initiated either voluntarily by the manufacturer or may be required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) if the manufacturer will not voluntarily issue one.  In both cases, the decision to issue a recall is made based in part on complaints received from automobile owners about the problem.  This gives you two steps you can take to try to get a recall initiated: one, you can contact the manufacturer; and two, you can contact NHTSA.  You can file a complaint with NHTSA by filling out a Vehicle Owners Questionnaire (VOQ).  (If you fill out a VOQ, please read our statement below on the government's handling of this form.)  Your vehicle manufacturer's contact information should be available on the Web.

If you think your vehicle has a defect, it is important to file a complaint with NHTSA so that if there is a defect, the agency can address it before people are hurt or killed.  It is also important to contact the manufacturer about the problem so they have a record of it.

On NHTSA's Web site you can search the agency's database of recalls, defect investigations, and consumer complaints for problems similar to yours.  Below are links to the pages where you can perform each search.

Recall search

Defect investigation search

Customer complaint search

Reimbursement Information:

In November of 2000, following the highly publicized Ford/Firestone debacle, Congress passed a law that required the establishment of a manufacturer reimbursement program.   This law called on NHTSA to issue a regulation that would assure that consumers would be reimbursed if they fixed a defective vehicle or piece of equipment if that vehicle or part was later included in a recall.   In October of 2002, NHTSA passed a final rule that Public Citizen believes is only a partial and begrudging response to this command from Congress. 

The rule went into effect on January 5, 2003.  You, and other consumers, can now claim reimbursement for repairs that are made to your vehicle if you follow the specific guidelines set out in the rule.  Basically, once NHTSA or the manufacturer announces a defect recall, you can submit documentation of your repair and be reimbursed.  Keep your eyes open for communications from the manufacturer of your vehicle – the communication will tell you where to send this reimbursement information.

The information you will need to provide the manufacturer to receive your reimbursement is:

Your name and address.

  • Identification of your product – either the vehicle or the piece of equipment.
  • Proof of the recall.   This can be, for example, a photocopy of the notice sent to you by the manufacturer or a printout of the recall notice from the NHTSA website.  (NHTSA recalls can be found at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/)
  • The receipt for the work you had done on your vehicle or piece of equipment.   This could be, for example, a photocopy of an invoice from the mechanic or the receipt from an auto parts store.
  • Proof of ownership of the vehicle.   This could be, for example, a photocopy of the tittle for the vehicle or a photocopy of the insurance for the vehicle with your name listed as owner.
  • If the remedy was obtained within the period you were covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, you must explicitly document why the repair was not/could not have been done under the warranty.   For example, you could provide a copy of a denial of warranty service from a dealership or some paperwork explaining why the warranty work did not fix the problem addressed in the defect (that was fixed by work you had done beyond the warranty.)

There is a small window of time during which repair work will be eligible for this reimbursement program.   There are two ‘openings’ to this window:

  • The most common defect to is one in which the vehicle or equipment has a safety-related problem.   In case of a safety-related defect, the reimbursement window is opened when NHTSA opens an engineering analysis – or – one year prior to the date the manufacturer tells NHTSA about the defect (whichever is earlier).  To determine whether or not an engineering analysis has been done on the defect in your vehicle, visit NHTSA's "Monthly Defect Investigations Report" website.  There, engineering analyses (action #'s beginning with the letters "EA") are listed along with the dates they were opened and any comments that NHTSA has collected on them regarding status of recalls. 
  • A less likely defect scenario involves a vehicle or piece of equipment that fails a NHTSA standard.   In this situation, the reimbursement window is opened after the observation of this failure by either NTHSA or the manufacturer.

Similarly, there are two 'closures' of this reimbursement window:

  • If the defect was in your vehicle, the reimbursement window is open until ten days following the date the manufacturer mailed the last of its notices to owners about the defect. 
  • If the defect was in a piece of equipment, the reimbursement window is open until ten days following the date the manufacturer mailed the last of its notices to owners about the defect – or – 30 days after the conclusion of the manufacturer's initial efforts to provide public notice of the existence of the defect or noncompliance (whichever is later.) 

If at any time you are interested in finding out if the defect reimbursement is open under the above guidelines, feel free to call NHTSA's toll free auto safety hotline at 1-888-327-4236. 

If this seems complex and convoluted to you, we agree.   We have filed a petition for reconsideration with NHTSA arguing that this is an insufficient response to the original vision of Congress.   But, the rule is a step in the right direction – many consumers will now be able to be reimbursed for safety hazards they fixed on their vehicles before NHTSA or the manufacturer issued a recall. 

If you agree that this process fails to provide a simple mechanism for consumer reimbursement, we urge you to complain about the implementation of this important consumer safeguard to:

Nicole Nason, Administrator

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Ave., SE

West Building

Washington, DC 20590

The following documents might be helpful to you if you care to learn more about this rule and how you can be reimbursed for fixing defects in your vehicle:

NHTSA's Final Rule on Defect Reimbursement may be viewed here

Public Citizens petition for reconsideration (filed with the Center for Auto Safety) may be viewed here.

VOQ Information

Unfortunately, when you fill out the VOQ, your name and address will not be made part of a public record.  Instead this information will only be given if you consent on the form's one check box to the auto industry.  Although Public Citizen and other consumer advocacy organizations would use this information to assist NHTSA with its investigations, and although this information used to be routinely disclosed, since 1995 NHTSA has kept it secret. 

Because the agency may not make the fullest use of your VOQ and may never follow up with consumers about problems, we ask you to join our campaign to insist that the public is given equal access to this information.  It is important that groups like Public Citizen have access to the names and addresses of consumers with defect complaints so that we can help you and others to hold NHTSA and manufacturers accountable for fixing safety defects. 

If you believe that this special treatment for the auto industry should be ended, please tell NHTSA, in the body of your VOQ complaint at the very end of the form, that you would like to have your name and address publicly listed and that a checkbox to give consent for the name and address of complainants to be made publicly available should be included on the agency's VOQ form. 

We suggest the following language: 

“I would like my name and address to be publicly released so that others may assist the agency in its investigation.  I also ask that the agency add a checkbox to enable others to provide this consent, thus ending its unfair policy of maintaining this information in secret for all but the auto industry.”

Please send us a message if you ask NHTSA to publicly release your information.

Will I be reimbursed for fixes I make to my vehicle if the problem is later covered under a vehicle recall?

Perhaps. Following the highly publicized Ford/Firestone debacle, Congress passed a law that was intended to allow consumers to be reimbursed for fixes made to their vehicles prior to an actual recall. In October 2002, the government finalized the regulation that sets up the rules for reimbursement, but they are very complicated and do not give consumers easy access to the money.

Save all the information (paperwork, receipts, etc.) from your maintenance work, and click here for additional information on what to do to increase your chances of getting reimbursed.

Click here for more information.

    » autosafety | vehicles | consumer | defects

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