Driver complaints to federal highway safety regulators soared this year, spurred by a slew of Toyota Motor Corp. recalls and a rush by other automakers to announce fix-it campaigns that focused the public’s attention on auto defects.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received more than 40,000 complaints through Dec. 14, according to an analysis by automotive research firm Edmunds.com. That’s four times the volume of recent years.
“People are now more aware that there is an agency called NHTSA and that you can complain to it. Complaints are a good thing,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
Toyota, long considered one of the most reliable brands, was the subject of more than a quarter of the complaints. Its ratio of complaints to 100,000 vehicles sold jumped to nearly 87 so far in 2010 from 37 a year earlier. This week Toyota agreed to pay $32.4 million in fines for failing to promptly inform regulators of defects in its vehicles, instead allowing millions of potentially dangerous vehicles to remain on the nation’s roads.
Nissan Motor Co. had the second-worst ratio, at nearly 62 complaints per 100,000 vehicles sold; Volkswagen was third at nearly 58. The industry average was 47 complaints per 100,000 vehicles sold, up from fewer than 30 in 2009.
NHTSA is hearing from people such as Mark Cox of Leesburg, Va. He filed a complaint after his 2003 Subaru Legacy sedan and his 2004 Nissan Quest minivan both failed routine state safety inspections because of clouded headlight lenses.
“They start to oxidize, and that reduces the amount of light that is transmitted out of your headlights. That is a safety and durability issue,” Cox said, adding that he learned to file the complaints while reading about the Toyota auto defects issues.
“Maybe as more people bring these issues to light and NHTSA looks at them some of these problems will get fixed,” Cox said.
He still hasn’t heard back from the agency, though. Nor has Hisham Alam of Huntington Beach, who filed a complaint with NHTSA this year after the engine in his 2002 Toyota Highlander froze.
“The engine loosened from its bolts, breaking the head gasket and causing the oil and coolant to spill out,” Alam said. “The dealer said it would cost $7,500 to fix.”
He found similar Toyota complaints on the NHTSA site and decided to file his own in October. He wound up paying $2,500 to an independent mechanic to rebuild the engine.
“I am expecting that over time, a lot of people will file the same type of complaint and that there will be some lawsuit or something that will prompt Toyota to acknowledge the problem” and eventually recall the vehicle and reimburse people for their repair bills, Alam said.
NHTSA said it had received more than 64,000 complaints in 2010, compared with about 35,000 in recent years. (To arrive at its total, Edmunds tossed out duplicate complaints from the same individual and complaints that had other inconsistencies.)
The agency reviews every complaint, looking for patterns that might determine whether an investigation is warranted, NHTSA spokesman Eric Bolton said.
“Safety is the top priority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and information from consumers is a vital tool the agency uses to identify defects,” he said.
Bolton urged drivers experiencing problems with a vehicle to file a complaint, either online at https://www.nhtsa.gov or through the agency’s auto safety hotline at (888) 327-4236.
Because of the volume of complaints, the agency contacts a driver only when more information is required, he said.
“This stuff just skyrocketed,” said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds. “Toyota was the trigger, but consumers are more sensitive and have more knowledge about how to complain.”
Although higher than in recent years, the volume of complaints is still tiny considering that there are about 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads, said Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.
The volume of complaints was higher during President Carter’s administration, Ditlow said, but subsequent administrations were less interested in auto safety, and the number of complaints declined as NHTSA’s prominence faded.
“What we are seeing once again is an administration and agency that are saying, ‘We welcome your complaints. Tell us what is wrong with your car.’ And it is saying we will take action,” he said.
The complaints to safety regulators rose as the number of vehicles affected by recall campaigns grew to 19 million, the highest level since nearly 30 million vehicles were recalled in the U.S. in 2004, according to the Edmunds data.
Anwyl said it made sense that Toyota complaints soared, given the millions of its autos that were recalled this year. Volkswagen also has had a spotty reliability record and has had a high volume of complaints for several years, he said.
“The one that pops out is Nissan,” Anwyl said. An Edmunds review of comments about Nissan by participants in its online forums found that most had complaints about transmission problems.
Among large automakers, Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. had the lowest complaint ratios. General Motors Co. had the second-highest volume of complaints but ranked only sixth in its ratio of complaints to vehicles sold, according to Edmunds.
“Ford is statistically good,” Anwyl said. “This is another data point that shows how domestics pulled even with the other manufacturers.”