Your Guide to NHTSA Investigations

by Aryn Plax

Feb 25, 2021

When a defect appears in a vehicle, a consumer may submit an anonymous complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about their vehicle. Sometimes, a particular vehicle model may receive numerous complaints about the same problem. If a vehicle model receives enough reports of a recurring problem, those complaints may trigger an investigation. NHTSA determines whether an investigation is launched, and NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is in charge of carrying it out.

The investigation is split into two phases: the Preliminary Evaluation (PE) phase and the Engineering Analysis (EA) phase. During the PE phase, NHTSA reviews complaints and technical service bulletins (TSBs). From this review, NHTSA determines whether the investigation will end or move into the EA phase. If the investigation is upgraded to an EA, the ODI may conduct inspections, tests and surveys, as well as gain more information from the manufacturers. If a defect is found, NHTSA will issue a recall.

Sometimes, investigations are carried out to ensure that manufacturers are issuing recalls appropriately.

Magnifying glass placed upside down.

In such a case, a Recall Query (RQ) will determine if a recall should be expanded or if remedies need to be adjusted. The NHTSA may be petitioned to conduct this type of investigation as well.

Curious about any investigations for a particular vehicle model? You can search through NHTSA’s database. Click the “vehicle” tab and search by year, make and model. Once the results appear, click the number in the row of your desired vehicle and in the column titled “Investigations.” If you prefer to use its “SaferCar” app, the information can be obtained there as well.

The number will take you to a list of investigations that target the particular vehicle model. Investigations can be narrowed down by affected components, such as air bags and seat belts. Each entry will have a summary that describes the defect, lists the vehicles affected, dates the investigation and lists whether the investigation is still open. Along with each entry are associated recalls and documents such as ODI resumes and communications between NHTSA and the manufacturers.

Also included in each vehicle’s NHTSA listing are complaints, recalls and manufacturer communications.

Source: Motor Vehicles, Safety Defects and Recalls

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