For Want of a Nail: Tiny Defects Can Cause Huge Car Safety Problems

For Want of a Nail: Tiny Defects Can Cause Huge Car Safety Problems

When you think of a dangerous problem in your car, you probably imagine issues like brake failures or steering problems. However, potentially deadly issues can be much, much smaller than that. For example, General Motors (GM) recently recalled over 712,000 2020-2023 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs for applying slightly too much powder coating to the child seat anchorages.

That seems like a minor error, and it’s impossible to spot with the naked eye. However, the extra coating may make it impossible to safely and securely install child car and booster seats. As a result, children may not be properly secured if the affected SUVs are involved in a crash and are much more likely to be injured or killed. 

This recall is an excellent demonstration of how apparently tiny issues may pose significant safety hazards. It also highlights the importance of monitoring your car for recalls and other potential problems. Let’s explore how vehicle safety defects are defined, what may constitute a dangerous defect, and how to find out about risks so you can get your car repaired, replaced, or refunded. 

What Does the NHTSA Consider a Safety Defect?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency responsible for regulating and enforcing vehicle safety standards nationwide. While the NHTSA rarely directly orders manufacturers to issue recalls for safety issues, this is not due to a lack of safety defects. 

The agency incentivizes carmakers to investigate issues and issue recalls themselves. Suppose the NHTSA orders a carmaker to issue a recall after performing an independent investigation. In that case, that company will likely face fines and other penalties in addition to the recall cost. Most companies prefer to avoid that by self-monitoring for problems. 

But what warrants a recall in the first place? There are two grounds for recalls in the US:

  • A vehicle or component doesn’t meet the appropriate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were established based on research to determine the most effective ways to protect occupants during crashes. 
  • A vehicle or component has a safety-related defect. According to the United States Code for Motor Vehicle Safety, a safety-related defect is “any defect in performance, construction, a component, or material of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment” that poses an unreasonable risk to occupants or other road users.

In other words, recalls must happen when there is a manufacturing-related problem with a car that may make it unsafe, whether or not a set standard covers the issue. The purpose of a recall is to repair the problem at no cost to the consumer. 

Manufacturers also monitor their vehicles for defects that aren’t related to safety. However, because these issues don’t put anyone at risk of harm, they are not obligated to issue recalls for them. Instead, they send technical service bulletins (TSBs) to their dealerships regarding how to fix the problem. Most TSB repairs are covered by the car’s warranty. Once the warranty expires, owners can still opt to have TSB-related maintenance performed. However, they may need to pay for them because they aren’t related to safety. 

Examples of Serious Safety Problems Caused by Small Defects

The difference between problems that warrant a TSB vs. a recall may be slim. For example, a faulty radio may be grounds for a TSB, while a flawed electrical system might be grounds for a recall. Similarly, a vehicle that consumes too much oil may be subject to a TSB, but one that leaks oil might face a recall due to the potential fire hazard. Other examples of apparently minor defects that actually pose recall-worthy risks include:

  • Faulty backup cameras: If a backup camera doesn’t display the appropriate view within federal standards, the driver cannot safely back up because they cannot fully view what’s behind the vehicle.
  • Glitchy software: Most modern vehicles use computers to control safety features like driver assistance and collision detection. If the software glitches, it could cause preventable crashes. 
  • Leaks that affect electrical systems: A leaky seal normally isn’t worth a recall – unless that seal protects the electrical system. In that case, the leak could pose a serious electrocution or fire rise for occupants. 
  • Failing seats and seat backs: Seats in a vehicle aren’t just for comfort; they’re also a critical safety component responsible for shielding occupants from whiplash. People are more likely to get injured if the seat isn’t secured or the back comes loose. 
  • Defective windshield wipers: Windshield wipers are easy to ignore until you’re driving in a downpour. If the wipers don’t keep the windshield clear in a rainstorm, they put the driver and everyone else on the road at risk.

How to Find Out About Your Car’s Safety Problems

The NHTSA makes it easy for drivers to determine if their cars are subject to recalls. You can go to the agency’s website and enter your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to learn whether your specific car has been subject to a recall at any point. Furthermore, if you’re the registered owner, the manufacturer will send you a letter by mail explaining the recall within a few weeks of the announcement. You can then schedule an appointment with your nearest registered dealership to get the problem fixed. 

But what happens if the recall repair doesn’t work? Or what if you have a TSB repair performed, but the defect comes back? If your car is still under warranty, you may be eligible for a lemon claim in California. State law permits owners to file lemon claims for any manufacturing defect affecting the value, performance, or safety of a vehicle identified within 18,000 miles or 18 months of ownership. 

Don’t let your car’s safety defects go unaddressed. If your nearly-new vehicle has been recalled and the repair didn’t work, you should talk to Johnson & Buxton — The Lemon Law Guys. Our expert lemon law attorneys can help you determine if you have a claim and fight the manufacturer on your behalf. Schedule your consultation to learn how we can help you get your California lemon repaired, replaced, or refunded.   

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