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Toyota Woes Give Pause to Consumer Reports

Stocks in this article: TM

"A group like Public Citizen, Consumer Reports or any of the other auto safety groups can be on the ground and hear what kind of problems people are having with their vehicles and can look at what the NHTSA makes public," says Lena Pons, auto analyst for consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. "But we can't see if there are patterns and there's no way for us to know how many investigations they've initiated because there's no public record of it."

While petitioning the NHTSA for expanded access and better organization figures heavily into Consumer Reports' improvements, Weine says the need "not to drag the recall information underground" has made changing its recall coverage process a priority. He says a recent review of Consumer Reports' top picks from recent several years found that more than half had been recalled, showing the need to improve access to recall information.

"It's been our standing advice, when you purchase a used vehicle, that you make sure that any service bulletins or recalls have been performed," says Jeff Bartlett, Consumer Reports' deputy online editor for automotive content. "We have not yet connected the dot indicating what those are, and we've really left it up to the purchaser and the dealer, who can provide that information."

As Nissan and General Motors add to the recall count, organizations like Consumer Reports are under increasing pressure to monitor the car industry more closely and objectively. However, with consumer advocates calling the NHTSA database impermeable and carmakers like Toyota using trade secrecy loopholes to mask defect information, increased transparency may require stricter enforcement of laws like the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act put in place during the 2000 Bridgestone/Firestone recalls. Until then, Consumer Reports and its angry followers are stuck in post-Toyota gridlock.

"In this case, public-advocacy groups can hardly take responsibility because the databases just don't contain the same information that the NHTSA has," Pons says. "We only have access to the information that's publicly accessible, and some of the most useful information hasn't been publicly accessible."

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.
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