Washington area consumers looking for hard facts about automobile safety should call the Auto Safety Hotline at 426-0123. Those living outside the metropolitan area can dial 800-424-9393.
This service, operated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has information on specific model recalls, crash test results, fuel economy ratings and ongoing investigations into car safety problems. In addition, the agency will accept consumer complaints, which can be used to identify possible patterns of auto safety.
A staff of 12 is assigned to answer hotline calls and send requested information. Calls placed after regular business hours will be recorded on an answering machine for staff response.
For prospective used car buyers, the hotline could be a special blessing. Here's how:
You call and ask for the history of the recalls for the car you plan to buy. The operator uses a computer to look up the car's record and tells you the number and the nature of the recalls. If you want more detail, and have time to wait, the operator will send you a computer printout listing the date of each recall and a description of the recall problem. Requests usually are filled within a few days.
Say you want to know more about the 1983 Dodge 400.
According to the printout from the hotline, that car has been the subject of four recalls. Three of them were for brake system problems; the fourth involved a possible misconnection of the engine ignition wiring.
The printout said that the first recall affected 3,785 Dodge 400 vehicles built in May 1983. This recall was intended to correct the "rear brake tube/pivot bracket."
According to the printout, "the rear hydraulic brake tubes to both rear wheels may make contact with the suspension's trailing arm pivot brackets. Continued contact could cause the brake tube to wear through, resulting in loss of brake fluid and partial loss of braking ability. The instrument panel brake light will provide a warning of the failure, which may occur at a very low mileage." The correction is made by "inspecting and relocating the rear wheel brake tubes . . . " and by replacing any damaged tubes, the printout said.
Now suppose you want to know if your Dodge 400 was among the recalled vehicles. To find out, you send a postcard to Chrysler, along with the vehicle identification number. NHTSA includes an addressed postcard with the recall printout material. All you have to do is fill it out and drop it in the mail.
If your Dodge 400 was the subject of any of those four recalls, Chrysler should know from its records. Chrysler also should know whether the corrections were made. If they weren't, it's important that you follow up and have the car checked and corrected.
NHTSA spokeswoman Roberta Wasserman said that the number of consumers calling the hotline for safety information is rising. "In 1983, we were getting 600 calls a day," she said. "In 1984, it was up to 660 calls a day."
About 60 percent of the consumers who call want recall information, she said. The rest want to know about defects or general automobile safety. Some of them are referred to other agencies for help with their question. Questions about warranties or auto service, for instance, are referred to the Federal Trade Commission.
Wasserman said that the hotline has information on all recalls going back to 1966 when NHTSA was established by Congress. The agency's safety information covers domestic and foreign cars -- "anything sold in the U.S."