Financial Resource Center


Toyota Recalls May Bring Positive Side Effects

by Jerry Edgerton / August 16th, 2010

The image is horrifying: A car's engine suddenly starts racing, and nothing you can do will slow or stop it. The sudden acceleration incidents in Toyotas and corporate sibling Lexus have been linked to as many as 89 deaths, and Toyota has recalled eight million cars worldwide for this problem alone. But this and other bad situations may have some good side effects, including stronger auto safety laws and more aggressive enforcement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Washington, D.C. In addition, consumers may become more aware of how to report defects or problems with their cars and to research whether other owners have had similar issues.

Tougher safety laws

On the regulatory front, NHTSA has fined Toyota $16.4 million for a delay in reporting sticking gas pedals—one of the suspected causes of the sudden acceleration problem. That is the maximum fine under current law, but proposed legislation would eliminate that limit. The furor over the Toyota recall has focused Congressional attention on the need for tougher auto-safety laws on several fronts. "Consumers and auto companies alike will benefit from fundamental reforms to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act," says Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "All too often, auto companies, with their focus on short-term profits and sales, have failed to incorporate advanced safety features and recall vehicles with known defects." The legislation, given a good chance of passage, includes a requirement to set standards in several areas:
  • Brakes—So-called brake override will neutralize stuck accelerators: Hard braking would stop the car even if the engine has been racing. Toyota says it will install such a feature in new models. And some brands already have been doing so—including Nissan, Volkswagen, Chrysler, and Dodge, as well as luxury brands Audi, BMW, Infiniti, and Mercedes-Benz.
    Consumers may become more aware of how to report defects or problems with their cars.
  • Electronic controls—Toyota insists that electronic throttles and other electronic controls were not involved in its acceleration problem, but outside experts have continued to raise that possibility. The proposed new law would require NHTSA to set standards for electronic controls.
  • Black boxes—Like airplane black boxes, these event data recorders (EDRs) would record data just before and after a crash to determine its cause. All new cars would be required to have the device. "EDRs could help highway safety researchers learn a lot more about what happens in real crashes—including how well safety belts and air bags are working," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry-sponsored safety research organization in Washington, D.C.
Consumer groups such as the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America say the legislation needs to be improved. They call for eliminating secret meetings with manufacturers during NHTSA defect investigations. They also advocate increased public availability of information on NHTSA's Web site about potentially defective vehicle components.
Event data recorders would record data just before and after a crash to determine its cause.

Research your vehicle's problems

However, even with existing reporting requirements, there are ways to check up on your vehicle if you're having recurring problems and—in some cases—get them fixed for free. Go to the Defects and Recalls section of the NHTSA Web site. Check out four different sections from the buttons at the left:
  • Safety recalls. Start with this section. Your problem could have generated an official recall and you were not notified, especially if you're not the original owner of the car. If so, you definitely will get the problem fixed for free. Print out the details of this notice and take it to a dealership.
  • Defect investigations. Check to see if problems like yours triggered a NHTSA investigation. If one is under way, it may strengthen your case for a free repair. But if NHTSA closed the investigation without ordering any action—as in the case of Toyota unintended acceleration, where NHTSA ordered no action for 2002 Toyota Camrys—it undermines your argument.
  • Safety complaints. In the Search complaints subsection, see if other owners of the same vehicle have raised this problem. Read the complaints carefully to see if others took the cars to dealerships. Be especially alert for a notation that the dealer fixed the problem at no charge, and plan to show it to your dealer.
  • Service bulletins. These bulletins, sent to dealers detailing needed repairs, must be filed with NHTSA. The agency puts summaries of safety-related bulletins on its Web site. But getting full documents is slow, taking weeks or longer. Fees run $45 an hour for staff time.
    You have a better chance of a free fix if you have a car still under original warranty.
    Instead, if evidence from defect investigations or owner complaints makes it likely that the car company has detailed fixes for your problem, you can buy a full set of service bulletins from Alldata, a publisher of repair manuals and other automotive information. At the Alldata consumer Web site, you can get a full set of service bulletins for $26.95. Print out any bulletin describing your problem.

Getting a free repair

Take any printouts you have and head for the dealership. "If you have done your research and have the documents, you should be in a stronger bargaining position," says Sean Kane, whose Safety Research and Strategies firm does general auto safety research and also works with plaintiffs' lawyers. But you are not assured of a free repair. You could get a discounted deal or be asked to pay full price. You have a better chance of a free fix if you:
  • Have a car still under original warranty. You still have to convince the dealer that this is a defect with a manufacturer-prescribed fix.
  • Have a technical service bulletin that mentions "goodwill assistance" or "goodwill adjustment."
  • Have NHTSA complaints for the same problem, especially if one mentions a free fix by a dealer.
  • Are a repeat customer of that dealership, so the service department staff really may care about your "goodwill."
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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