The Department of Transportation (DOT) will post online all vehicle Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) and any other automaker communications to dealers about defects in vehicles, regardless of whether the defects are the subject of a safety recall.

This move by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shines a light on previously shadowy—and sometimes secret—automaker communications to dealerships about potential automotive safety defects. The move improves consumer safety by enabling government and safety watchdogs to identify vehicle problems earlier.

The announcement is a victory for consumers and safety advocates—especially the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) which has worked for many years to have this information available in a usable form.

In addition to all TSBs being posted in a more consumer-friendly PDF format to the DOT’s website, the directive also strongly recommends that the manufacturers submit the information in searchable formats.

Lack of a fully searchable database has been a problem for NHTSA, with other government agencies, consumers, and safety advocacy groups often receiving incomplete or misleading data about defects.

All of this comes on the delayed adherence to a 2012 congressional mandate directing the Secretary of Transportation to make manufacturer communications like TSBs publicly accessible. Previously, such information was limited to industry professionals, either through direct dealership communications or through paid subscription services for automotive technicians. Now, independent repair shops will have access to TSBs for free. Regular consumers not well-versed in the technical language used in TSBs will also have access, but will most likely need assistance translating what can often be highly complicated and specialized bulletins.

“Disclosure could save lives,” says CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow, adding that the database also will “save consumers money for repairs covered by Service Bulletins and dealer communications.”

But consumer safety is at the heart of this new information gathering tool.

More than a decade ago, General Motors began installing ignition switches in some car models that soon after began to exhibit “moving stalls.” In other words, the cars would stop running, and power steering, power braking, and airbags would all shut off. In 2005, GM issued an electronic alert to dealers that ignitions could turn off without explanation and issued a TSB. Neither warning was posted by DOT.

Simultaneously, reports of airbags not deploying during crashes of these GM vehicles began to emerge. It wasn’t until the investigation of a fatal 2007 accident that others outside GM began to put the pieces together—when a Wisconsin state trooper recognized a connection between the faulty ignition switch causing air bags to not deploy. It wasn’t until 2014 that GM announced publicly that the safety defect existed.

Ditlow explains, “Disclosure of these dealer communications could have saved lives and led to an earlier discovery of the ignition switch defect.”

“Consumer Reports has long believed that the information in these communications between automakers and dealers are great for consumers so they can identify potential issues with their cars and more quickly be able to remedy them,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. 

Check technical service bulletins (TSBs) for common problems on the new and used car model pages, under the Reliability tab.