How to File an NHTSA Complaint for Your Defective Car

How to File an NHTSA Complaint for Your Defective Car

If you’ve just bought a brand-new car, you probably expect it to work well and safely for years to come. However, that’s not always what happens. Every year, thousands of California residents drive new vehicles off dealership lots only to discover serious safety defects within months of taking ownership. 

The mass-produced nature of modern cars means that these defects are rarely unique. If your vehicle has a problem with a critical system, others of the same year, make, and model likely do as well. That’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requests that owners report safety defects. 

You do not have to file an NHTSA complaint if your car is dangerous, but it may be worthwhile. Not only can your complaint help other drivers and the federal government, but it can also support a lemon claim. Below, we explain what the NHTSA does, when and how to file your safety report, and how it could help your claim. 

What Is the NHTSA?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the federal agency responsible for vehicle performance and safety standards. As part of the Department of Transportation, the NHTSA:

  • Writes and enforces the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
  • Administers the vehicle identification number (VIN) system
  • Tests vehicles for safety and performance
  • Collects and maintains databases of road and vehicle safety information, including crashes and safety reports

While all these duties are important, the most valuable service it provides the average driver is its enforcement of safety standards. The agency investigates vehicles with safety issues and can order manufacturers to recall and repair defective cars. However, it also recognizes that it has limited manpower and may not identify every problem independently. 

To account for this, the agency allows individuals to report safety issues they identify in their vehicles. When it receives a notable number of similar complaints for a specific make and model, it investigates the matter to determine whether a recall is necessary. 

That’s why your report matters. The threshold for investigating issues further can be as low as just a few dozen complaints if they are consistent and the problem is dangerous. Your complaint could help the agency hold negligent carmakers accountable and help other drivers get their vehicles fixed. 

What Problems Should You Report to the NHTSA?

Vehicle manufacturing defects can be divided into three general categories: safety problems, utility problems, and value problems. All three issues could be grounds for a California lemon claim, but the NHTSA doesn’t necessarily care about them equally. 

Value problems are typically the least important, and the NHTSA rarely acts on them. For example, if your vehicle’s paint starts peeling after six months, that’s annoying and may hurt the vehicle’s value. However, it’s unlikely to put you or other drivers at risk. You can report the issue to the NHTSA, but it probably won’t lead to an investigation. 

Utility problems are more serious. These are issues that prevent you from using your vehicle in ways you might reasonably expect. For example, if your window switches are defective and you can’t roll them down, or if your locks jam and you can’t secure the vehicle, those are utility defects. It may be worth reporting these because utility and safety problems often overlap. 

Finally, safety problems are the most severe. These issues may or may not look serious at first, but they make accidents, injuries, or fatalities more likely. Examples range from inaccurate warning labels to faulty backup cameras to wiring defects to pedals that jam. These issues are always worth reporting to the NHTSA. 

How to File an NHTSA Complaint

Reporting defects to the NHTSA is simple. It’s as easy as going to and clicking the “Report a Safety Problem” button in the upper right corner of the page. There, you’ll choose what type of problem you’re reporting – usually, this will be a vehicle issue. 

When you click the link, you’ll be taken to the Vehicle Complaint Form. You’ll be asked to provide information including:

  • Your car’s make, model, year, and mileage: This basic information is used to identify trends across different complaints. 
  • Your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN): This is the equivalent of a Social Security Number for your car. It specifically identifies your vehicle, which helps the agency track down where and when it was manufactured. 
  • Your contact information: This allows the agency to contact you if it needs more information about your problem. 
  • A description of the issue: A straightforward description is best. You don’t need to provide a personal narrative, just the facts of the problem. 
  • Evidence of the problem: This can include mechanics’ reports, pictures, and other documentation showing you’ve experienced the defect as described.
  • Any damages you’ve experienced as a result of the issue: This can include injuries you or others have suffered, damage to the vehicle itself, or damage to other property caused by the defect. This information helps the NHTSA determine the actual severity of the problem. 

Will an NHTSA Complaint Affect a Lemon Claim?

Not every defect that warrants a lemon claim justifies an NHTSA report, or vice versa. However, if your brand-new car has a defect that impacts its safety, it’s worth making a report even if it doesn’t qualify as a lemon just yet. 

The information you must submit for an NHTSA report will also be necessary for a successful lemon claim. Collecting it early can only help your case. Furthermore, filing your complaint starts a paper trail demonstrating how long you’ve had problems with your vehicle. If the manufacturer cannot repair your car, having an NHTSA complaint on record could work in your favor. 

If you think your car has a safety defect that makes it a lemon, don’t wait to get help. Talk to Johnson & Buxton — The Lemon Law Guys. We’ve been helping California residents file lemon claims for years, and we can help you, too. Schedule your consultation today to see whether you qualify and learn whether it’s worth making an NHTSA report alongside your lemon claim. 

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