When a consumer reports a vehicle safety complaint, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reviews the complaint and determines whether to conduct an investigation. If the investigation finds a vehicle does not comply with safety standards or discovers a safety-related defect, the NHTSA can require the manufacturer to recall the faulty vehicle or part and provide the consumer with the appropriate remedy.

Not all safety investigations result in a recall. If there are limited reports of safety hazards or the possible problem would only affect a small population of consumers, the NHTSA may take no action and continue to monitor the issue. Alternatively, the manufacturer may recall a vehicle or part voluntarily before the NHTSA conducts an investigation.

When vehicle owners and drivers are dealing with a vehicle defect or safety hazard that is not being addressed by the manufacturer or the NHTSA, California consumers may still be protected by California Lemon Laws and can contact their Lemon Law attorney for help.

Overview of the NHTSA Vehicle Safety Investigation Process

A consumer files a Vehicle Owner's Questionnaire (VOQ) issue with the NHTSA online, by phone, or through the mail. The safety complaint is posted to the NHTSA website, where others can search for complaints by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), or year/make/model.  

The NHTSA reviews each complaint and screens them for safety issues and decides whether the issue should be selected for a follow-up or selected for further analysis.

The NHTSA also conducts an analysis of any petitions calling for a defective vehicle investigation. If the agency decides not to open an investigation, the reasons for the denial are published in the Federal Register.

The NHTSA may open an investigation of alleged safety defects. The agency will close the investigation when either:

  • the agency notifies the manufacturer of recall recommendations, or
  • the investigation does not identify any safety-related defects.

The investigation is conducted by the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI). In some cases, the ODI may contact the vehicle owner who filed a complaint to clarify or verify information.

The investigation may involve inspections, tests, surveys, and contact with the manufacturer. A search of vehicle investigations on the NHTSA website also shows the associated documents between the NHTSA and the manufacturers.  

Initiating a Safety Recall

When the NHTSA or a manufacturer determines that a vehicle, vehicle equipment, car seat, or tire creates an unreasonable safety risk or does not meet the minimum federal safety standards, a recall is issued.

Under a safety recall, manufacturers are required to fix the safety issue by repairing the defect, replacing the part, or offering the consumer a refund. In some cases, the manufacturer may be required to repurchase the vehicle from the owner.

NHTSA Vehicle Investigations

The vehicle investigations may go through a number of phases, depending on the safety issue and manufacturer action. This includes:

  • Preliminary Evaluation (PE)
  • Engineering Analysis (EA)
  • Recall Query (RQ)
  • Defect or Recall Petition (DP or RP)

Preliminary Evaluation: The first phase of a NHTSA investigation involves a review of consumer complaints or manufacturer service bulletins which suggest a safety defect may exist. After a preliminary evaluation, the NHTSA will determine whether to close the issue or upgrade the issue to an engineering analysis.

Engineering Analysis: The next and final phase of a NHTSA investigation is the engineering analysis to determine whether to initiate a safety recall or close the investigation. In general, EAs are completed within a year.

Recall Query: In a recall query, the NHTSA monitors the manufacturer's recall procedure to make sure the scope of the involved vehicle and part, rate of completion, and provided remedies are adequate. If there is a problem with the recall, the NHTSA can open an RQ to property address the recall problems or issues.

Defect Petition or Recall Petition: In a defect petition or recall petition, the NHTSA is petitioned to investigate a defect or recall. If the petition is granted, the NHTSA may conduct an investigation to determine whether the manufacturer is properly carrying out the recall.

Vehicle Investigation Decisions and Follow-Up

The NHTSA provides monthly reports on vehicle safety investigations and recalls. The Defect Investigation Report shows the action number, vehicle model and year, subject of the investigation, and opening/closing date of the investigation.

An example of an investigation report from a February 2019 report is as follows:

Action#: PE18-007

Mid-Model Year: 2013 Ford Escape 1.6L GTDI

Subject: Loss of Motive Power

Date Opened: 16-JUL-2018

Safety Defect and Noncompliance Notices

As part of the NHTSA's ongoing follow-up to recalls and vehicle safety investigations, the agency compiles a monthly report of safety defects and noncompliance notices. An example of such a notice is from the April 2019 Report, for recall 19V-273:

BMW of North America, LLC (BMW) is recalling certain 2006 525i, 525xi, 530i, 530xi, 530xi Sports Wagon, 325i, 325xi, 325xi Sports Wagon, 330i, 330xi, Z4 3.0i and Z4 3.0si vehicles. The heater for the positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) valve may short circuit. An electrical short can cause the parts within the PCV valve to melt, increasing the risk of a fire, even when the vehicle is not in use. BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the PCV valve heater, free of charge. The recall began May 30, 2019. Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417. Note: This recall is an expansion to recall 17V-683.

These reports generally provide for the product or vehicle involved, safety issues, and remedy for recall or repair by the manufacturer, including contact information for consumers.

Investigating Defective Cars in California

Not all vehicle complaints will be investigated by the NHTSA. For a driver with a defective car that is not subject to a recall or dealer repair, California's Lemon Law may still protect you.

Contacting The Lemon Lawyer today will help you understand your rights and whether you can take advantage of California's consumer protection laws to return your vehicle, get a refund, get free repairs or replacement, or have other compensation for your defective vehicle. Contact The Lemon Lawyer today.

Don't Hesitate

The longer you let your car sit in the shop, the greater the cost is to you. If you think you may have a case, get in touch with one of our attorneys today.