Massive GM recall reveals benefits of obtaining technical service bulletins

Consumer Reports

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General Motors' release of a “technical service bulletin” in 2005, alerting dealers to a potential ignition swtich problem that now is being blamed for 12 deaths in some GM cars, underscores the value of the bulletins, even for consumers. (Download a full-size JPEG of the TSB shown right.)

Becoming familiar with the bulletins can help you save money by alerting you to problems with a car you own or plan to buy. In limited cases, they also can provide an early hint of a potential safety problem or expose the risk of an expensive problem. (See: "Free Engine Replacement for 2006-2009 Honda Civics.")

Automakers use the bulletins to inform dealers about the many different issues that can emerge after a vehicle leaves the factory. A particular model may generate dozens of service bulletins over its lifetime.

Bulletins focus on nonsafety-related defects that might affect a vehicle’s performance or longevity, such as parts that fail prematurely or don’t operate the way they’re meant to.

They advise service technicians about how to diagnose and repair a problem, specifying tools, techniques, and the required parts. Bulletins also can alert dealers to other issues, such as changes in recommended tire pressure or lubricants, repair procedures, and maintenance requirements. Technical service bulletins are not recalls. And while they don't necessarily entitle customers to free repairs, some bulletins indicate that manufacturer is extending warranty coverage for a specific issue.

Just because a bulletin mentions a potential problem with your model, that doesn't mean the issue necessarily will develop in your particular vehicle. Often a specific glitch shows up on only a specified portion of the production run, on vehicles driven in certain parts of the country, or under certain conditions.

Depending on the issue, some bulletins may be difficult to understand for anyone unfamiliar with car repair; others are fairly straightforward.

In the GM case, the bulletin issued in 2005 and revised in 2006 warned dealers about the potential for drivers to inadvertently turn off the ignition in seven models, ranging in some cases from 2003 to 2007. The bulletin said the problem was most likely to occur with short drivers and those with large or heavy key chains. It provided a part number for a replacement key ring and insert that engineers had developed to address the problem. GM did not issue a safety recall. (See: "What to Do if Your Engine Dies When You're Driving.")

Now, nine years later and with a dozen deaths attributed to the problem, GM is recalling 2.5 million vehicles, and its chief executive officer, Mary Barra, has apologized, saying that “something went wrong with this process, and terrible things happened.” Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and, reportedly, the Justice Department are investigating.

Read "What To Do If Your Engine Dies When You're Driving" for Consumer Reports' tips.

How technical service bulletins can help you

Buying a used car. If you’re considering buying a used car, knowing the technical service bulletins that have been issued for it can give you or your mechanic an idea about what to pay special attention to when inspecting the vehicle. It could be an armrest that may break because of a weak bracket, a troubling engine misfire, a premature failure of the exhaust system, or early rust-through of certain body panels. A dealer may be able to tell you whether the issue has been addressed on your particular vehicle. If it hasn’t, you might use the information to persuade a dealer or individual seller to correct the problem as a condition of the sale or to lower the price so that you can deal with it yourself later on.

As in the GM case, a technical service bulletin might give you an early warning about an issue that could affect vehicle safety, although you’re better off checking for recalls, complaints, and investigations at Safercar.gov. (Other resources for learning about emerging safety issues are the many online message boards that owners set up for specific models. Use a web search to find them.)

Maintaining a car you already own. Bulletins can alert you to issues to look out for while your vehicle still is under warranty. Perhaps that vibration you’re experiencing at high speed isn’t normal after all. Or maybe there's a good reason why your tires keep wearing unevenly. If the vehicle no longer is under warranty, having a bulletin that points to a widespread problem may help you persuade the dealer or manufacturer to provide a so-called goodwill repair, in which part or all of the cost is covered. If your vehicle is in for repair, a technical service bulletin focusing on that issue may clue you in that the repair shop has misdiagnosed the problem or come up with the wrong solution.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, bulletins can alert you to changes in parts, repair procedures, and other issues that you won’t find in repair manuals.

If you’re selecting a repair shop, ask whether it has access to all the technical service bulletins for your vehicle. Franchised dealers always do, and qualified mechanics will, too.

How to get bulletins

There are a variety of ways to obtain bulletins.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. You can find free summaries of many technical service bulletins for a specific vehicle (along with details about safety investigations, complaints, and other information) by entering a vehicle’s year, make, and model at SaferCar.gov. When you see the results, click on the “Service Bulletins” tab. You can order technical service bulletins from the website. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which runs the website, charges research and copying fees, you shouldn't have to pay anything if you're ordering fewer than 100 bulletins, an NHTSA spokesman told us. But you'll have to wait four to six weeks because the copies are sent by mail.
  • Repair shops. If you’re seeking a specific bulletin, try getting a dealer’s sales or service department to show it to you, particularly if you bought the vehicle there, are planning to, or the dealer is recommending a technical-service-bulletin-related repair. One dealer we asked told us he'd have no problem showing customers technical service bulletins either before or after selling them a vehicle. If you have an independent mechanic that has technical-service-bulletin access, he may be willing to provide it, as well.
  • Vehicle manufacturers. Some automakers, such as Nissan, give customers access to their bulletins, but it can be costly.
  • Independent companies. Some companies sell technical service bulletins. You can see a list of bulletins and other useful vehicle information by obtaining a subscription from ALLDATAdiy.com  ($26.95 annually for the first vehicle; $44.95 for five years) and Mitchell 1 DIY ($25.99 annually; $39.99 fours years). You can view sample bulletins by visiting the Mitchell 1 DIY sample vehicle demo.
  • Car websites and message boards. Some vehicle enthusiast websites and forums post technical service bulletins, even though it may be a copyright violation.  

Visit our guide to car maintenance, car repair estimator, and search car recalls.

—Anthony Giorgianni



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