A Little-Known Tactic Can Make the U.S. Investigate Your Car-Safety Problem

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One of those was filed by Troy Lyman, a computer programmer from Winchester, Calif., who owns a 2007 Saturn Sky. A major concern among Sky owners, which arose around 2015, had been a sensing mechanism failure that could prevent the passenger-side airbag from deploying.

“G.M. wasn’t doing anything about it. N.H.T.S.A. wasn’t looking at the complaints and doing something about it,” Mr. Lyman, 48, said. “Basically it came down to, at some point in time, there has to be an individual who will do something about it, and I was tired of waiting for it to be somebody else.”

The agency granted his 2016 petition and began asking General Motors about the issue. Early in 2017, G.M. announced a recall of 91,000 2006-10 Pontiac Solstice and 2007-10 Saturn Sky models.

“I was surprised it would cause them to get them into action,” Mr. Lyman said. “That was the biggest shock — that something actually came of it.”

He added, “When G.M. issued the recall, I was absolutely floored.”

The other 31 petitions were either not granted or investigated and dismissed without finding a safety defect. In explaining its rejections in the Federal Register, the agency typically said its initial analysis had indicated that there did not seem to be a problem or that it wasn’t likely to result in a recall and spending time would be a poor use of agency resources.

The agency’s stated goal is to decide whether to grant a petition within 120 days. But it often fails to do that. The agency has one petition from 2018 that is late and one each from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013.

“N.H.T.S.A. doesn’t follow its own rules as far as timeliness in investigatory matters,” said Mr. Oliver of the North Carolina Consumers Council. “This puts the safety of the public at risk since vehicles that have alleged safety defects are allowed to remain on the road for a long time while N.H.T.S.A. sits on investigations. The public should be outraged.”

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