Regulators, Manufacturers, Dealers, And Mechanics Get To Read About Car Defects — But Not Consumers

The thirteen-year-long mess of the GM ignition switch recall was, in part, a failure to see and identify patterns in the data. Over the course of a decade, individual consumers lodged complaints that, put together, could have revealed the whole problem sooner. But nobody got to look at the whole, because all of the service bulletins that carmakers like GM send to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration go into its database… and never come back out. Too bad so sad, says NHTSA, but lawmakers and auto-safety advocates are hoping to change that.

The way that car manufacturers report on defects happens largely in private, as The Wall Street Journal reports. When a company like GM hears about a problem from drivers or mechanics, they issue a technical service bulletin (TSB) to their dealerships explaining how to deal with it. So, for example, if a line of cars has an issue where the rear cup holder keeps popping out, but it stays put if you replace a screw with a different kind of screw, the manufacturer would issue that in a service bulletin.

Sometimes what seems like a small issue at first turns out later to be a big issue. That’s what happened with GM’s ignition switches: the first few reports seemed to be isolated events, but were instead the front edge of a major safety issue, resulting in a massive (if long-delayed) recall.

The NHTSA also receives all the TSBs, which then go into their private database. The agency publishes abstracts of some of the reports, but the database is strictly internal, and off-limits to consumers.

Back in 2012, the highway programs reauthorization bill did include language requiring the Department of Transportation (NHTSA’s parent agency) to publish auto makers’ “communications to dealers” on a public website. And while carmakers do indeed use their TSBs to communicate to dealers, NHTSA apparently takes a more narrow view of the law.

And why? Because of copyright restrictions, they say.

NHTSA claims they only publish information after something has been technically classified as a safety defect, because the whole TSBs are copyrighted documents. A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told the Wall Street Journal that consumers are welcome to buy copies of the documents from third parties.

Lawmakers like Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts are hoping to push NHTSA into publishing the bulletins on their website, and they have support not only from auto-safety advocate groups but also from, of all places, GM.

GM’s own investigation of the ignition switch defect and recall found GM lawyers and engineers at fault for not looking at the TSBs about the Chevy Cobalt on NHTSA’s website… but the bulletins weren’t there for them to find.

“If publication helps customers and dealers solve problems together, we’re all for it,” a company spokesman told the WSJ.

Safety Regulator Balks at Disclosing Full Alerts [Wall Street Journal]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.