Total Recall

What's your recourse on a faulty auto?

Alan Marks purchased a 2000 Ford Explorer in October 1999. He soon noticed the first problem. “The windshield wipers would go on by themselves,” says Marks.

Frustrated, he took the car in for repair. “Turns out there was a recall for some electronic part and they fixed it, but I didn’t find that out until I brought the car in [for repair].” And there was a bigger issue.

A few months later, he received notice in the mail about his tires. It was in reference to the August 9, 2000, recall of 6.5 million tires on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles. The Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. tires on the SUV were causing fatalities because of tread separation. But Marks received the official notice long after hearing about the tragic, related deaths on the news.

“I was really worried. [Firestone] said it would replace the tires but couldn’t do them all at once, so I had to wait a few months and drive on suspect tires. At the back of my mind, I wondered if my tires were safe or not,” Marks says.

Consumers filed 57 claims, from 1989 to 1995, against Bridgestone-Firestone. There were 367 complaints in 1998, and 353 filed in 1999.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, came under fire when the agency dragged its feet before responding to a 1998 complaint from a State Farm Insurance researcher’s warning about an alarming number of claims against Firestone tires. This was a year before news reports about Firestone tires sparked hundreds of complaints to the agency. It took public outcry from groups such as Public Citizen, individual lawsuits, as well as a suit filed by the Center for Auto Safety, to get a bill passed giving the NHTSA more authority to investigate and hold automobile makers accountable.

Ford is not alone. Other automobile makers have had their share of woes. Although all vehicles sold in the U.S. must pass Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, many are recalled each year for a number of reasons: seat belt buckle replacement, old wires that could spark, and leaky fuel system, to name a few.

Of this year’s models, more than 50,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees were recalled for faulty fuel inlet check valves. Daimler Chrysler Corp. recalled 72,000 Jeep Liberty vehicles where the driver’s side knee blocker trim panel assembly could disengage, fall, and startle the operator, increasing the risk of a crash. General Motors Corp. recalled 78,004 Chevy Trailblazers and GMC Envoys. These vehicles could roll with the transmission in park.

Many people end up paying out-of-pocket for repairs, or simply ignoring the smaller problems.

When a car manufacturer determines defects are widespread for a particular model, it sends a technical-service bulletin to its dealers on each defect with diagnostic and repair information. By law, manufacturers are required to file these bulletins with the NHTSA. “We look for a trend, either consumer complaints or we read about it in the newspaper, then we start an investigation to determine a safety defect, and we ask

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