Consumers have an important role to play in helping regulators and automakers find and correct problems in their cars. Many problems, such as the Toyota unintended acceleration incidents, are so rare that car owners are the only ones who have actually experienced the problem.
So it's important when consumers file complaints that those submissions be as descriptive and accurate as possible. In doing our own research on unintended acceleration in Toyotas, that's not what we found.
Here's a typical example (on a 2005 Ford F-150) submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and transcribed for entry into the complaints database.
"The contact stated while applying brake pressure at low speed through a parking lot, the vehicle lurched forward into an embankment without warning. No injuries or damage was sustained. The police was not alerted. The vehicle was driven to the dealer who was unable to duplicate the problem. The manufacturer was not contacted. The consumer stated the truck was in park, when he applied the brake to it in gear, the pedal became stuck. "
In contrast, this example (on a 2010 Toyota Camry) is among the most specific, actionable complaints we've found yet in the NHTSA database, but even it isn't perfect.
"I am requesting that DOT NHTSA investigate the driver's contribution to unintended acceleration (UA) and Toyota's accelerator/brake pedal designs that make it possible. I was driving a rented Toyota Camry in a parking lot. I applied the brake and instead of slowing down the vehicle began to gain speed. I pressed harder on the brake and it accelerated. The harder I tried to stop the car, the faster it went. I took my foot off the brake for a moment and the vehicle stopped accelerating. I believe that my foot was on both the brake and the accelerator pedals. I measured the distance between the brake and the accelerator and found that it was only 1.5 inches. My vehicle a GM Acadia is 2.5 inches. This made me think that the tops of the two pedals are too close together. I managed to find 6 different Toyota models, including the Prius, and they averaged 1.5 inches between the tops of the brake and the accelerator pedals. I measure competitive vehicles and found they averaged 2.2 inches. Something is wrong with the Toyota designs - they are too close together. I have continued to investigate unintended acceleration and have collected a significant amount of data that supports the fact that the driver is a major cause of UA and that some vehicle designs make it possible.... Please formally investigate."
So in the interest of moving past finger-pointing and toward a solution, we interviewed some of safety experts on NHTSA complaints to get their recommendations for how consumers make those complaints more useful.
Those experts agreed with our own; what's needed is more detail. Nevertheless, be as brief as possible, providing very specific descriptions of what happened, rather than long, rambling stories.
To enter a complaint, visit: safercar.gov, and click on "File a Complaint."
By lodging detailed complaints on what they have themselves experienced, consumers can play an important role in aiding NHTSA and automakers in identifying problem trends and developing solutions.