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

That so many of the petitions in the last decade were dismissed is not a surprise to Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

What seems to work best is a defect petition “in combination with consumer awareness, media attention and other mechanisms to sort of raise the temperature,” said Mr. Levine, who has been waging a media campaign over a defect petition he filed this year. It is urging the agency to recall 2.2 million 2011-14 Hyundai and Kia models, asserting a fire danger.

Gary Weinreich was terrified when the steering on his 2005 Toyota 4Runner failed on a busy two-lane highway in South Carolina in May. Later he was angry enough that he wanted to do more than gripe. So he tried a little-known tactic to compel federal regulators to investigate and possibly recall 500,000 other 4Runners for a prematurely rusted frame.

Mr. Weinreich, 69 and a retired environmental engineer from Murrells Inlet, S.C., filed a defect petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That meant his problem would receive more attention than the 40,000 normal complaints the agency typically receives in a year…

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