Open, Accountable Government
E-Gov Spotlight: Safercar.gov Informs the Public about Vehicle Safety Risks
by Gavin Baker, 5/6/2014
Vehicle safety is a significant concern for many Americans. As the ongoing General Motors recall has shown, problems with automotive parts can adversely affect millions of people. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency that sets safety standards for motor vehicles and investigates defects. To keep customers informed, NHTSA's Safercar.gov provides a portal to information about potential problems with cars and automotive equipment.
What is Safercar.gov?
Safercar.gov provides many resources for vehicle owners. The core of the site allows consumers to research safety information for their vehicles, including recalls, agency investigations, and consumer complaints. The site also provides a mechanism for drivers to send complaints to the agency, which could alert investigators to a problem.
Using the Site
Several simple pathways allow drivers to easily locate relevant information. The site uses prominent buttons to highlight some of the most frequently taken actions, including "Search for Recalls" or "File a Complaint." Common types of vehicle equipment, such as tires and car seats, are also highlighted on the homepage. In addition, the site displays recent news about the agency's activities related to auto safety.
The site has sections for particular types of users such as vehicle shoppers, owners, and manufacturers. Each section highlights agency information most relevant to those types of users. For instance, vehicle shoppers are presented with information on vehicle safety ratings as well as quick links on child safety, tires, airbags, and rollover risks. The vehicle owner section provides information on filing complaints; searching through recalls, investigations, and complaints; and how to sign up for alerts. The manufacturer section offers tools and information to help dealers and manufacturers use NHTSA data to educate consumers and for submitting safety information to the agency.
A pull-down menu offers several intuitive options for searching recall information, such as searching by the year, make, and model of a vehicle, or by the manufacturer of equipment. For instance, searching for "2012 Hyundai Sonata" produces search results indicating that there is one recall for air bags, no investigations, 135 consumer complaints, and seven service bulletins from Hyundai. The user can click the site's tabs to switch between the different types of information and scroll through complaints and service bulletins to see if any match vehicle problems they have experienced. In addition, a visitor can subscribe to receive notice of new recalls pertaining to his or her vehicle. Visitors can conduct similar searches on car seats, tires, and auto parts.
Overall, the safety information on Safercar.gov is very thorough. Users can easily navigate the site, guided by effective organization, from the main page through each subsequent feature. Clear, detailed instructions and easily referenced Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and tutorials accompany the user throughout the navigation process.
Significantly, the site collects all the safety information relevant to a particular vehicle or product in one place, making it a useful, one-stop-shop for vehicle safety data. Also of note: the site includes complaints received from the public, which can serve as an early warning system to consumers but which some agencies prefer not to disclose until a complaint is fully researched by agency staff.
The search feature benefits the user with a multitude of options. The ability to register for recall alerts is another useful feature. The availability of mobile apps for Apple and Android devices is convenient for smartphone users. For advanced users, the site also offers bulk downloads of the data.
While the site navigation is intuitive overall, there are a few confusing aspects. The "File a Complaint" page includes useful background information about making a complaint, but if a user clicks on the "File a Complaint" link from the Safercar.gov homepage, it takes him or her directly to a complaint form, skipping past the background information.
The site also doesn't make full use of the safety databases on vehicles, tires, and car seats. The site allows owners to search for information relevant to their particular car or product. But the site doesn't offer shoppers any tools to use this information. Those considering a purchase of a car, set of tires, or car seat might find it helpful to be able to compare the recalls, complaints, and service bulletins for different manufacturers. And while shoppers may find the safety data on the owner's page of Safercar.gov, that tool isn't configured to allow easy comparisons between products. Because of this, users are forced to perform separate searches for each different car or product and compare the results offline.
There are some limitations to the mobile app, as well. For instance, the Android app only provides information about recalls, not investigations or complaints. In addition, the Safercar.gov website itself does not appear to have a responsive or mobile-optimized design for easy mobile use without an app. Shoppers at a car lot may find access to such information through their mobile device particularly helpful.
Additionally, there appear to be some limitations in the data. The information on the site is primarily organized by manufacturer, but sometimes companies are not consistently identified – for instance, there are entries for both "Harley Davidson" and "Harley-Davidson."
NHTSA's Safercar.gov offers practical, convenient features for users interested in researching recall and safety information. Overall, it offers substantial and well-organized resources for the public, making the website a useful tool for helping drivers stay safe. Minor improvements in some of the navigation and more standardization of the data would be helpful so users can find what they are looking for more quickly and easily. Tools that would allow for the comparison of the safety information for different cars, tires, and car seats would be great new features for shoppers. The mobile app should also be updated to provide access to complaints and investigation data, and the site should be optimized for smartphones and tablets.