Who you gonna call?

by Ruth Jones, senior editor

Has this ever happened to you? Chances are at some point in your driving career, no matter how well you maintain your truck, you've found yourself on the side of the road with a truck that either won't run, or isn't safe to drive. Of course, your primary objective is to get back on the road as quickly as possible. But once you call a tow truck or repair service, is that all you should do? Maybe not.

NHTSA Auto Safety Hotline 1-800-DASH-2-DOT (888-327-4236)

Before you buy. . .

NHTSA can provide vehicle buyers with valuable information.  By visiting NHTSA's web site at www.nhtsa.dot.gov,  truckers can access recalls, service bulletins and complaints relating to a particular make of truck (or other vehicle).  Information is also available by calling the Auto Safety Hotline (1-888-327-4236).

Once you determine what's wrong with the truck and arrange to have it repaired, take a few minutes to analyze what happened. What caused the problem? Ask your mechanic's opinion and add to that your personal experience and knowledge. Could it be a design defect, part failure, or a result of the manufacturing process? Then ask yourself if the problem you experienced compromised your personal safety and/or the safety of other highway users. If the answer is yes, a call to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Auto Safety Hotline is in order.

Larry Long, program engineer for NHTSA, addressed the OOIDA Board of Directors Oct. 22 about the importance of reporting vehicle defects. "In 1998," says Long, "NHTSA received more than 750,000 calls to the hotline, 20,000 of which were entered into our database. Of these 20,000 complaints, only seven related to class eight trucks."

When NHTSA receives a complaint, a preliminary evaluation is done to determine whether a safety risk may exist. Things like radios or air conditioning not working, ordinary wear items, or routine engine or transmission malfunctions that provide ample warning of failure (through noise, vibration and fluid leakage) are not considered safety-related defects.

Things that would be considered safety-related defects include partial or complete loss of steering control, complete or partial loss of braking power, leaking fuel that could cause a fire, wiring problems that could result in a loss of lights or a fire, or an accelerator that sticks or breaks. Faulty clamps, bolts, welds, etc. that could cause a part or component to fall off the vehicle could also be considered a safety risk.

The next step is an analysis by government engineers. As part of the information gathering process, NHTSA will request that the vehicle manufacturer provide records of all repairs and reports related to the complaint. If NHTSA determines that a recall is warranted, the manufacturer will be asked to conduct one. If the manufacturer does not voluntarily comply with NHTSA's request, then NHTSA will order the manufacturer to initiate the recall. In cases where the recall arises from a defect in a component from an outside supplier, it is still the vehicle manufacturer's responsibility to conduct the recall and make repairs.

"We know defects exist in heavy trucks, we just need truckers to tell us about them," says Long. "It only takes one complaint to get the process started."

Vehicle complaints may be made by calling the Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236. The hotline is staffed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. An answering system will take your information during times when operators are not available. Complaints may also be made by visiting NHTSA's web site at www.nhtsa.dot.gov.