How Recalls Happen

The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration is the federal agency responsible for investigating unsafe motor vehicles in the US. Often working quietly to investigate and analyze vehicle safety issues, their dedication to protecting the public often goes unnoticed until a vehicle recall is announced.

But recalls are just the proverbial tip of the investigation iceberg, so to speak.

There are 4 levels of investigation for Nhtsa safety investigators. The lowest level is the "Preliminary Evaluation" which starts after enough consumer complaints or factory service bulletins occur to suggest a safety defect may exist. It usually last about 4 months and if the issue looks serious, the results of the PE investigation go "up the ladder."

The second phase of a federal safety investigation is the "Engineering Analysis" and it is the final phase of any informality. Here the data from the PE is closely examined to see if a potential safety defect is so serious that a recall should be required. This part usually takes about a year.

Obviously, during this whole time the manufacturer is aware of the investigation process because they are required to provide responses to Nhtsa requests for more information. Direct dealings between those people often tell the manufacturer where the investigation is headed and how likely it is that it will get to a recall point.

Often the manufacturer will try to head off the seriousness of the problem by announcing the recall themselves, which also serves as a public relations move to brag about their self-proclaimed concern for public safety.

When the manufacturer announces a recall, it still isn't over with though because Nhtsa's safety investigators will then pour over the recall announcement to make sure that the scope of the recall is proper, the recall work is being doing timely, and that the repair work described by the recall will fix the defect involved. If federal safety investigators seriously question if the recall is adequate, they start a "Recall Query." This is where they investigate whether or not the scope of the recall should be expanded or if the factory's fix is adequate.

Finally, if Nhtsa safety investigators think the factory is ignoring a defect, or the factory won't cooperate with what Nhtsa thinks is the proper scope of the recall or the repair work really needed to fix a defect, Nhtsa can file to investigate a safety defect "on the record" or to investigate whether a manufacturer has successfully carried out a recall. They call this a "Defect Petition" or "Recall Petition." If the Nhtsa position is justified, federal safety investigators open this most serious investigation but it rarely gets this far.

Part of the reason is the very conservative position taken on enforcing safety laws by the current and recent Nhtsa regulators, but that's a story for another day. The point is that federal safety investigators are supposed to be watching out for you, but that may not be the case after all.

One thing is for sure. If you've got a bad vehicle with a problem the manufacturer won't fix, whether they recalled it or not, contact us. We can help.

Share this:


Known nationwide as a leading Lemon Law attorney, Ronald L. Burdge has represented literally thousands of consumers in "lemon" lawsuits and actively co-counsels and coaches other Consumer Law attorneys. From 2005 through 2018, attorney Ronald L. Burdge has been named as the only Lemon Law Ohio Super Lawyer by Law and Politics magazine and Thomson Reuters Corp., Professional Division. Burdge restricts his practice to Lemon Law and Consumer Law cases. The Ohio Super Lawyer results are published annually in the January issue of Cincinnati Magazine. Ronald L. Burdge was named Consumer Law Trial Lawyer of the Year 2004 by the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the nation's largest organization of consumer law private and government attorneys. "Your impact on the auto industry has been magnified many times over because of the trail you blazed for others," stated NACA's Executive Director, Will Ogburn. Burdge has represented thousands of consumers in Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere since 1978 and is a frequent lecturer to national, state and local Bar Associations and Judicial organizations. Burdge is admitted to Ohio's state and federal courts, Kentucky's state courts, and Indiana's federal courts. Other court admissions are on a "pro hac" temporary, case by cases basis.