Gripes can mask real car defects

Petty complaints pour into agency

Linda Patrick installed an accelerator in a Camry in Georgetown, Ky. Complaints about Toyota’s defects were among thousands of owner gripes sent to government safety officials. Linda Patrick installed an accelerator in a Camry in Georgetown, Ky. Complaints about Toyota’s defects were among thousands of owner gripes sent to government safety officials. (Ed Reinke/ Associated Press)
By Ted Bridis
Associated Press / February 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Scores of Toyota owners filed formal complaints with the US government about mysterious problems with gas pedals, brakes, and steering in recent years, sometimes after terrifying accidents. The complaints, often described in remarkable detail, exist inside an enormous database intended to alert federal investigators to early signs of looming safety problems.

But these needles - reflecting serious threats that merit full investigation - exist in a haystack of gripes by thousands of other drivers complaining to the government about much less meaningful matters, according to a comprehensive review by the Associated Press of more than 750,000 complaints filed over more than 15 years.

They include complaints about slick pavement during snow, inconsiderate mechanics, paint chips, sloshing gasoline during fill ups, potholes, dim headlights, bright headlights, inaccurate dashboard clocks, and windshield wipers that streak. The driver of a 10-year-old Toyota Tundra in wintry Nottingham, N.H., with 80,000 miles on the odometer, complained about rust under his pickup.

The government’s complaint files represent its principal barometer to detect approaching storms, such as recent claims by some Toyota owners about unintended acceleration, unreliable brakes, and awkward steering. But the ability of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to foresee widespread safety problems - compare new complaints to old ones, identify trends, and disregard aberrations - is a central issue for two oversight hearings on Capitol Hill this week as Congress considers whether the government acted quickly and aggressively enough toward Toyota to protect consumers.

“It really is the principal early warning system,’’ said Mike Brownlee, former head of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, which collects the complaints. “It’s the auto safety equivalent of epidemiology.’’

But if NHTSA’s car complaints system is akin to public health network monitoring for new disease symptoms and outbreaks, it isn’t one run by doctors, nurses, and hospitals. The government’s vehicle safety data are submitted by the equivalent of patients themselves, and some are hypochondriacs eager to chronicle their ailments.

“Can’t break [sic] effectively on snow,’’ wrote the owner of a 2008 Prius in Mentor, Ohio, who described the effects of driving 35 miles per hour in the white stuff. But really, who can?

“Brakes did not work on ice,’’ wrote the driver of a new Prius, this one in Plymouth, Minn., describing the experience of many drivers. The complaint filed last month said the hybrid slid 15 feet at 20 miles per hour on an icy road but didn’t hit anything before the car finally stopped.

In Oceanside, N.Y., a driver complained earlier this month about the 2009 Honda Accord illuminating the word “eco’’ in tiny green letters on the dashboard when the car is driven at top fuel efficiency. “It still annoys me,’’ the driver wrote, even after nine months. “I have no issue with the eco feature, just the stupid, distracting light.’’

The complaints - more than 30,000 every year - reflect the love-hate relationship Americans have with their cars and trucks.

Some manufacturers are the subjects of dozens of complaints each month, until problems make headlines: Toyota’s complaints surged from about 400 per month to more than 4,300 during the first two weeks in February.

Behind a mortgage or rent, vehicle payments - plus fuel, insurance, and maintenance - are often the next-costliest household expense. Drivers don’t tolerate even minor glitches on such expensive items, and they frequently urge the government to pressure manufacturers to shoulder their repair costs by announcing a formal recall.