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Why Can't Owners View Technical Service Bulletins?

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Loose all-weather floor mat jams accelerator pedal. Photo: NHTSA

Loose all-weather floor mat jams accelerator pedal. Photo: NHTSA

Back in September 2007, and again in April 2008, Toyota sent out warnings about floormats, and how they could interfere with pedal travel.

But very few owners were made aware of the issue, as the warning was sent out as a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB), only initially visible to about 1,500 Toyota and Lexus dealership service departments.

We know how the story ended up—with about 4.2 million vehicles recalled, just a few months ago, for the pedal-entrapment issue.

It highlights an issue that well-informed car owners have griped about for years: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides no way for vehicle owners to view the full text of a TSB, and the only way to do so it to subscribe (at a cost of hundreds of dollars) directly to the automaker or to one of several pricey premium services aimed at mechanics, dealerships, and the like.

Some automakers prefer it this way, as more than 5,000 TSBs are released each year and they often outline an issue that most often isn't safety related. If it is safety related, it can be escalated to a safety-related recall. But unless the TSB pertains to something serious like the engine, transmission, or fuel system the fix isn't likely to be automatic. If the customer notices the issue and asks for a fix, they'll almost always receive it free of charge; if not, who's to know?

On NHTSA's TSB search page—the only place accessible by consumers without a subscription to one of these services, such as independent-mechanic-oriented Alldata—the information is very cryptic and in the form of non-standard abbreviations.

For instance, Consumer Reports gives the example of "MIL ON," which is supposed to mean that the 'check engine' light would be on if experiencing the issue.

A number of other recent issues that have led to safety-related recalls—such as Ford's software issue with braking on its Fusion Hybrid—have started out as TSBs.

According to Center for Auto Safety executive director Clarence Ditlow, automakers own the text of TSBs, so NHTSA isn't able to publish them. That might finally change with the passage of a federal Right to Repair Act, which includes the requirement for TSBs in full to be made publicly available. The Act has failed in the past, but this year's hearings have earned it bipartisan support that might finally lead to passage.

In the meantime, glean what you can from your dealership or mechanic. Ask a lot of questions, check NHTSA's search page, and call the automaker if necessary to verify which TSBs, if any, are applicable to your vehicle.

[Reuters; Consumer Reports]

 
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