Recall Information, TSBs (Technical Service Bulletins), and other Service Advisories: Issued for Your Vehicle?

by Harry Bradley on December 17, 2011

recall informationWhether or not your vehicle is currently experiencing problems you may, like many owners, want to find out if your vehicle is currently the subject of a manufacturer’s recall or other product update.  This information may be published in the daily news, but watching the news alone is a haphazard source at best for gathering information as only those recalls affecting millions of units or those having severe problems ever make headlines.  If you suspect your vehicle is the subject of a recall or other update by the manufacturer follow these steps to gather the most current information on recalls and other service campaign information for your vehicle.

How to Obtain Recall Information and Service Bulletin Updates

What Your Service Department Knows That You Don’t

Despite thousands of service and repair advisories released every year, most information is released only to manufacturer’s dealers and not to you, even if you are entitled to receive the product upgrade or recall.  Vehicle manufacturers intend their service and repair information to be difficult to obtain as every dollar spent in repair, is a dollar of profit lost.  Below is the information you need to gather the relevant service and recall information released for your vehicle by the manufacturer.

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Types of Service Messages

Not every service campaign is a recall, and not every service message is part of a campaign.  Some product improvements are merely upgrades, and some are not even covered under warranty.  Therefore, some definitions are in order to understand what information is available and how you can expect to use it once you find it.

Recall – In terms ofproduct impairment and time sensitivity this is the most severe.  Officially, a recall is a voluntary action by the manufacturer to improve a product that officially may or may not ever experience a problem.  Unofficially, if you do some digging you’ll find that most often a NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) investigation preceded the recall which was initiated due to a high volume of customer complaints for a severe or safety related problem.  This product revision is, for all practical purposes, compulsory and one for which information is released publically, available via multiple sources, and concerning a problem of highest severity.  Vehicle owners should address this problem immediately at an authorized dealer once it is determined your vehicle is included in the recall. A recall can also be referred to as a “recall campaign” which is distinct from the next category, “service campaign”, below.

Service Campaign – This is a product revision action taken by the manufacturer on a voluntary basis.  Most commonly a service campaign results from information gathered by the manufacturer itself on a pattern of vehicle failures, and usually is initiated unilaterally in order to stave off escalation or involvement by the NHTSA.  The problems are likely no less severe than in a recall situation so immediate action should be taken by vehicle owners who discover that they own an affected vehicle.  Owners in most cases will be notified by letter directly from the manufacturer which may or may not be otherwise publically available.

TSB (Technical Service Bulletin) – This is the level where the manufacturer begins to restrict public access to information.  Released only to authorized dealers, the TSB is a manufacturer’s service message concerning a pattern of vehicle problems but with minimal expectation of NHTSA involvement.  This information is not released publically and will not be found on websites claiming to have complete lists of TSBs, despite the website’s claims to the contrary.  Only an authorized dealer or independent shop with a subscription to a reporting service will have this information.  This type of service message advises the dealer of a problem that may or may not pose a substantial operational concern.  The advisory can be for an issue as benign as recommended fluids on maintenance, or as serious as a problem that will earn recall status after further investigation.  TSB information for your vehicle should not be ignored even if the problem sounds minimal at first read.

Other Service Advisories – Many service messages are released prior to the extensive vetting, review, and cataloging process required to make an “official release” TSB or campaign.  Because of this, service advisories can be the most difficult service messages to obtain.  These messages are known by different names by different manufacturers and can be called service advisories, service letters, flash messages and the like, but they share common characteristics.  They are released quickly to disseminate service and repair information when time is critical and are typically released only though designated channels and only to known individuals at the dealer.  The problems described in a service advisory may be mild or severe, but release is made prior to the manufacturer making a final or semi-final decision on how to address the problem due to a perceived necessity for minimal response time.

Where Can I Get Recall, TSB and Other Service Information?

The short answer is that your dealer has the best service information available.  However, due to the varying restrictions placed on that information by the manufacturer your dealer may not tell you about this released service information even if you ask them directly.  As a matter of practice, any service information not classified as safety related or as part of a service campaign will likely be restricted and marked as “Dealer Only – Do Not Distribute”, so asking the dealer alone may not be enough.  You must gather information from other sources to be sure you have the most complete information available for your vehicle.

Do your research before ever approaching the dealer.  Yes, the dealer has the best information, but you need to check with other sources.  Below, in the order of importance and reliability are the sources you must check to have the best chance of complete service information for your vehicle:

NHTSA websitehttp://www.nhtsa.gov This government site is dedicated to vehicle recalls and safety, and has a complete catalog of all safety related recalls for your vehicle along with other service information.  You can also research which vehicles have pending NHTSA investigations and see other owners’ complaints for which no action has yet been taken by the NHTSA.  This is not a complete catalog of all service information as generally only recall information is released to the NHTSA, but it’s your best place to start.

A note on internet searches: The internet is full of sites claiming to have complete TSB, service, and recall information.  Be wary, most do not as these sites are merely data mining and restating the same information you already saw visiting the NHTSA website.  TSB information is not released publically and will not be found on websites claiming to have complete lists of TSBs, despite the website’s claims to the contrary.  Only an authorized dealer or independent shop with a subscription to a reporting service will have this information.  If you’ve visited the NHTSA site and find no new information at your next research site, exit the site and move on to something else.

Independent Shop with TSB subscription – Service information at the TSB level and above is available by paid subscription to certain independent shops.  The benefit of asking an independent shop for information before a dealer is that an independent has no disincentive to provide you this information or potential conflict with you under the warranty; i.e. the dealer is responsible for taking any corrective action described in any recalls, campaigns, or TSBs they find relevant to your vehicle.  If a warranty job doesn’t pay the dealer very well, it has a fair chance of not being discovered.  Call your favorite independent mechanic first to see if they have a TSB subscription and gather unbiased information.  Use the information you find to double check any information relayed by the dealer.

Authorized Dealer – As stated above, they have everything: recalls, campaigns, TSBs, the works.  The trick is getting them to share this information, and share it accurately.

2nd Authorized Dealer – Use the second dealer to try to verify the information from the first.  With calls to two authorized dealers you substantially increase your chances of getting a more complete service picture for your vehicle.

Manufacturer’s Customer Service Line – This is a last ditch effort for information.  The manufacturer’s customer service representatives will most likely not release information to you directly, and will instead advise you to contact your local dealer.

Don’t be daunted by the murky waters of the service information world.  Between the several sources where service information is available, you can obtain a clear picture of recalls, campaigns, and other service messages with a bit of perseverance and obtain the best parts and upgrades for your vehicle while they are available.

A further note on service messages, many service messages communicated to the dealer are marked as continuing product improvements only, and will not be considered as defect notices or instructions to provide warrantable repairs.  A service message of this type means that a manufacturer has noted an early failure in their design, but does not feel obligated to provide warranty repairs.  This occurs often with superseded parts or improved designs.  Because manufacturers feel they are not obligated to provide you with upgraded parts for an improved design, a shrewd negotiation may be in order between you and dealer management to obtain these improvements to your vehicle described in the service information you found.

Final Recommendation

If you find service information relevant to your vehicle, get it to the dealer and demand the corrections and upgrades stated in the recall, campaign, or TSB information you have gathered.  If the dealer refuses to take the corrective action, or if your vehicle is out of warranty, be ready to have a serious discussion with dealer management about receiving the service and repairs to which you are entitled.  If you receive a dissatisfactory answer from the dealer, escalate the situation to involve the manufacturer.  If the problem still is not resolved, seek professional advice and contact an attorney to find out your rights as a consumer.  Likely, if you have a recall, campaign, or TSB affecting your vehicle you will be able to make a claim to obtain those upgrades or repairs.

For Further Information

“Motor Vehicle Defects and Safety Recalls: What Every Vehicle Owner Should Know”

Every vehicle owner should read the information at the NHTSA’s website about consumer rights and information on vehicle safety recalls which can be found at:  http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/recalls/recallprocess.cfm .  This article is about safety recalls only, but gives you an idea what you can do should you discover a vehicle safety problem.

“Safecar.gov”

This government website, sponsored by the NHTSA, is probably the fastest way to determine if your vehicle is subject to a safety recall, make a complaint, or read other safety information related to your vehicle.  http://www.safercar.gov/

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