The Truth About NHTSA Complaints

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
the truth about nhtsa complaints

Click to enrage … we mean, enlarge

According to the MSM and many on-line pundits, the NHTSA has been drowning in customer complaints about Toyotas for years. Supposedly, the warnings were thrown in the wind.

Edmunds went through the pain of sifting through NHTSA’s complaint database from 2001 through Feb. 3, 2010 . After the counting was done, Edmunds came to a startling conclusion: The deluge of complaints is a myth, to put it charitably. “Fabrication” would be a better word. Amongst 20 brands, “Toyota ranks 17th among automakers in the overall number of complaints per vehicle sold,” says Edmunds. NHTSA’s own data shows: Only drivers of Mercedes Benz, Porsches and Smarts have less to kvetch than Toyota owners.

According to the hard data, Land Rover owners complain the most about their vehicles. Much to the horror of Germany’s Autohaus, “inordinate amounts of complaints come from VW drivers.” Volkswagen ranks 4th in NHTSA’s hall of shame. Two days ago, Christian Wulff, Premier of Lower Saxony, 20 percent owner of Volkswagen, warned about Wolfsburg complacency: “The troubles of the competition should be a warning to undertake everything so that the same doesn’t happen to oneself.”

The most complaints in the database, 25.3 percent of the total, concern GM cars. Relativized by GM’s large market share, this lands GM on place 11. Ford, where quality is job one, gets more complaints per car than the cross-town rival. Chrysler, the other ward of the state, ranks 7th. Volvo, supposedly the pinnacle of safety, created even more complaints per car: Place 6.

Edmunds points out that these are raw “complaints filed by individuals.” The complaints are “not checked for accuracy by NHTSA.”

In the blood & guts dept., Edmunds tried to get hard numbers about deaths and injuries, but decided that it’s an exercise in futility. “It quickly became clear that the data is unreliable,” says the Edmunds press release. “For example, one complaint indicated that 99 people had died in one vehicle as a result of an accident. It should also be noted roughly 10 percent of total complaints appear to be duplicates.” Which may explain some of the confusion, and some of the wild numbers circulating with no dependable source.

“No one should overlook the issues raised by the Toyota recalls, but it is important to keep things in perspective,” said Edmunds’ CEO Jeremy Anwyl. “A broader view shows that consumer complaints reflect an industry issue, not just a Toyota issue. As Toyota’s experience in recent months clearly demonstrates, it is no longer an option for car companies to dismiss consumer complaints, even if the event is difficult to replicate or diagnose.” Looking at the list, car companies have their hands full.

Edmunds and NHTSA’s own data prove that there is a witch hunt and mass hysteria that are not born out by hard facts. Whether the witch hunt and mass hysteria have been created, or are just exploited by other interests, is left as an exercise to the student. Conspiracy theories? Henry Kissinger pointed out that even the paranoid have enemies. By the dubious virtue of being the world’s largest auto maker, Toyota has no shortage of enemies. And a lot of reason for paranoia.

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2 of 51 comments
  • VLAD VLAD on Feb 12, 2010

    Old Russian proverb, "Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out to Get You". With this administration and the people they represent, assuming bad faith a priori will make you right more then 90% of the time.

  • Greg Locock Greg Locock on Feb 13, 2010

    Rather than fretting about the exact order of the manufacturers on that list, if you divide the number of complints by the market share then positions 3 to 19 out of the 20 fall in the range 1+/-0.5. I don't know what the statistical validity is of that table, but that seems to me to imply that there really isn't a lot in it, for most brands.

  • RHD Any truth to the unconfirmed rumor that the new, larger model will be called the bZ6X? We could surmise that with a generous back seat it certainly should be!
  • Damon Thomas Adding to the POSITIVES... It's a pretty fun car to mod
  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…