The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives car owners two methods of pursuing a safety problem. Most individual owners who experience a defect would choose the easier option of filing a complaint. You can file a complaint about your vehicle, a child seat, defective tires or other equipment. You can do this online or by calling the NHTSA during business hours. The NHTSA assures us that all complaints are reviewed, though individuals who file the complaints may not be contacted.
The second method of reporting a safety complaint is to file a petition. Petitions involve much more work on the part of those filing. They gather information about a number of incidents involving specific makes and models of vehicle. A petition formally requests that the NHTSA open an investigation into the safety issue or issues presented. By law, the NHTSA must make a decision about whether to pursue an investigation within four months of receiving the petition. Unfortunately, there are no consequences for failing to meet that deadline. A recent review of petitions to the NHTSA found that the deadline is regularly missed.
The NHTSA has received substantial criticism for its slow handling of the GM ignition switch defects. More than 10 years passed between the earliest reports of a dangerous defect and GM's recent recall of millions of affected vehicles. Thousands of complaints were filed detailing exactly how the vehicles were failing. The speed at which the agency moves is considered by many to be unacceptable. Delays in getting unsafe vehicles off the roads cause injuries and deaths.
There needs to be some way for defective vehicles to be identified quickly and recalled. A delay of years in protecting people from known safety hazards is unacceptable. The status quo at the NHTSA appears to be insufficient to protect the American public.
Source: Evansville Courier & Press, "Probe finds NHTSA moves slowly on investigation requests" by Tom Krisher, 11 August 2014