Niagara Gazette

April 18, 2013

TOM'S CORNER: Safety recalls -- How a defect becomes a recall

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Editor’s note: The Gazette has partnered with local automotive expert Tom Torbjornsen to publish his weekly national column. Tom’s Corner will appear in Thursday’s editions. 

Ever wonder how a vehicle defect gets to recall status? Based on the number of inquiries on this subject from around the country, this is a hot topic. Read on. I think you’ll find the process quite interesting and informative.

First of all, let’s look at the description of a typical recall as it appears from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Notice how the report outlines what vehicle/s are affected, the size of the vehicle population, when the recall was issued, the component affected, a detailed description of the problem, and an explanation of “the fix” or remedy.

Make: FORD


Year: 2003

Recall Number: 02I003000

Recall Date: SEP 27, 2002


Potential Number Of Units Affected: 350,000

SUMMARY: In order to enhance police office safety, model year 1992-2003 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (CVPI) vehicles will be equipped with shields designed to help protect the fuel tank in high-speed rear-impact crashes. Ford also will be offering an optional trunk package designed to improve the safe transport of sharp-edged, heavy equipment in these vehicles.

CONSEQUENCE: Some high-speed rear-impact crashes have resulted in fuel tank punctures and fires in CPVI vehicles.

REMEDY: Ford has advised us that shield kits have been available since late October and will be installed on police interceptor vehicles at no cost. The optional trunk package will be available by the end of 2002. Ford has established a new web site at HYPERLINK “” to answer additional questions about the safe use of CPVI vehicles.

NOTES: Customers can also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Auto Safety Hotline at: 1-888-DASH-2-DOT (1-888-327-4236).

Now for a little history lesson. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act enacted in 1966 gives the DOT (Department Of Transportation) and the NHTSA the authority to issue safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety related defects. Since the enacting of this bill, hundreds of millions of vehicles have been recalled to correct safety related defects. Many of these recalls have been initiated (voluntarily) by the manufacturers, while others have been either influenced or ordered by the courts. If a safety defect is discovered, the manufacturer must notify the NHTSA, as well as the vehicle owners, dealers, and distributors. The manufacturer is required to remedy the problem at no charge to the vehicle owner. NHTSA is responsible for monitoring the manufacturer’s corrective action for adequacy as well as compliance with statutory requirements.

What is a safety defect?

A safety-related defect is one that exists in a motor vehicle or the equipment thereof that poses an unreasonable risk to safety and is common to a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture. We’re not talking about creature comforts such as air conditioning or stereo systems. This is serious stuff that could compromise your safety!

For example:

• Steering components that may break suddenly causing loss of control of the vehicle

• Accelerator controls that may break or stick

• Leaky fuel systems that can cause vehicle stalling or fire

• Windshield wiper arms that fall off during operation

• Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use

• Gas tanks that might blow up upon rear impact of the vehicle

How does the NHTSA go about conducting an investigation to see whether a recall is in order? There are four steps in the process:

Screening process: The ODI (Office of Defects Investigation) starts a preliminary review of consumer complaints and other information related to alleged defects to decide whether an investigation should be opened.

Petition analysis: During this phase, all petitions for the defect are processed (again, in an effort to determine if there’s a case for recall).

Investigation: A detailed Investigation into the alleged defect/s is launched.

Recall management: In this phase, the NHTSA monitors the adequacy of the safety recall and safety-relatedness of the service bulletins issued.

During the screening process, the NHTSA relies on information it receives from Electronic Vehicle Owners’ Questionnaires, Vehicle Owner Questionnaires, E-mail, verbal consumer complaints, letters, and anonymous reports (most of this information is gathered from you, the motorist!). This information is analyzed by the TAD (Trend and Analysis Division). If the TAD evaluation of the available information indicates a safety-related trend or catastrophic failure is developing, than the appropriate investigative division is notified. There are two investigative divisions, the Vehicle Control Division and the Vehicle Integrity Division. The investigation begins at this point.

Investigations are conducted in two phases:

Preliminary Evaluation (PE): During this phase, the ODI obtains certain limited information from the manufacturer (including, but not limited to, data on complaints, crashes, injuries, warranty claims, modifications, and part sales) and determines whether further analysis is warranted. At this stage, the manufacturer has an opportunity to present its views regarding the alleged defect. PE’s are generally resolved within four months from the date they are opened. They are either closed because further investigation is not warranted, or because the manufacturer has decided to conduct a recall. In the event the ODI believes further analysis is warranted, the PE is upgraded to an EA (Engineering Evaluation).

Engineering Evaluation (EA): During an EA, ODI conducts a more detailed and complete analysis of the character and scope of the alleged defect. The EA builds on information collected during the PE and supplements it with appropriate inspections, tests, surveys, and additional information obtained from the manufacturer and suppliers. ODI attempts to resolve all EA’s within a year from the date they are opened, but some complex investigations require more time. At the conclusion of an EA, the investigation may be closed without further action. However, if ODI believes that the collected data indicates that a safety- related exists, the Associate Administrator for Safety Assurance is briefed. With Associate Administrator concurrence, the ODI investigator prepares a briefing to be presented to a panel of experts from throughout the agency for peer review. The manufacturer is then notified verbally of the panel’s result and given an opportunity to present any new analysis or data.

If the agency agrees with the ODI’s recommendations, ODI may send a Recall Request Letter to the manufacturer.

I get tons of e-mail from across the country, asking me if there’s a recall on a particular vehicle. What most folks don’t realize is that the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Administration) has the most extensive recall database on the Internet! Just go to and search recalls. Once there, you can run down any recall on any vehicle that has ever graced America’s roadways, clear back to the 1900s! Not only do you have access to these recalls, but you also have access to a TSB (Technical Service Bulletin) database, a child safety seat recall database, an ongoing defect investigations, a Complaint database, and many other topics too numerous to discuss in this forum. I strongly suggest that you bookmark this site as an automotive resource.

‘Til next time ... Keep Rollin’

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.