Mark Giammalvo specializes in driveability diagnostics at his family business, Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales & Service, Inc. in New Bedford, MA.
Mark, who has been with the business for
over 20 years, is an ASE
Master Technician and Parts Specialist. He also holds the ASE
L1 certification, and has an associates degree
in business management.
A Greater Resource Than Most Realize
(Printed in the Journal of The Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, AASP)
Several years ago, I was surprised to receive a call from a national government agency. The person calling was an investigator employed with The National Highway & Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agent wanted to question me on a report I had filed on a 97 Nissan Maxima. About six months prior to this call, our shop had the opportunity to experience alternator fires on two different 1997 Maximas. As per shop policy, I filed an online hazard report with NHTSA. As it turns out, the agent had received a total of five reports of alternator fires on 1997 Maximas. Two of the reports were mine and the three others were from other Maxima owners in other areas of the country. The NHTSA agent had been assigned to the "discovery" phase of an investigation of the fires. I pulled up the computer records on both cars. We discussed the car's histories and how the fires started. As I had recalled, both cars came in with loud alternators and battery warning lamps on. Out charging system tester had found faulty diodes in both alternators. Shortly after the cars were shut off awaiting parts, the alternators started to smoke and then catch fire. We stopped both fires with a combination of disconnecting the batteries and using shop fire extinguishers. Almost a year after that initial investigation, Nissan agreed to recall 1997 Nissan Maxima alternators. What I had not realized back then was the amount of information that is available to the public regarding recalls. Like most technicians in this industry, I always knew that the recall service information was available on the NHTSA web site (www.NHTSA.gov). However, I did not know how much more information was accessible. The Freedom of Information Act has definitely caused some information overload. On the NHTSA site, the recall information is just a brief description of the problem and the repair. This is similar to what the owner of an affected car would receive in the mail. That information in itself, is not that complex or surprising. Our shop's service bulletin database has this information and more. Going to the "defect investigation" section of NHTSA's web site is where you get the full story. In this area of the site you get to see all the "pursuit documents" as they are called. When I looked up the Maxima's defect investigations, I found I now had come across some serious reading material. The pursuit document is 26 pages long. The first document that comes up is the Office of Defects Investigation, (ODI) Resume. This letter states the reason for the investigation and the amount of consumer complaints. The letter also states the amount of accidents, fires, deaths and so forth. In this case, there were five complaints and all five complaints involved fires. The second document is the "Screening Resume." In this document they give a quick summary of the investigation as well as other relevant information. Here, the investigator listed a past Infinity alternator recall as possibly "relevant." The next document is where, one might say, the "heads roll." This is a registered letter sent from ODI to Nissan's National Technical Compliance Manager. This letter includes copies of the five consumer complaint forms, a description of the now opened investigation and some demands. The letter demands certain key information: Number of vehicles sold by year, model and assembly location; List of any and all fleet complaints, field reports, fire reports (thermal event reports), crash reports and lawsuits; names of parts suppliers and copies of all communications between suppliers, number of warranty or "good will" claims and other documents.
The amount of information both requested and presented is staggering. As I scrolled down, there in front of me, where the two separate complaint forms that I had sent to NHTSA as well as the other three owners complaint forms. I never thought my little complaint form would ever land on the desk of such a prominent Nissan corporate employee. I was really surprised that it only took five complaints to launch this ODI investigation. I guess it proves that every person "can" make a difference. The final document is Nissan's response to ODI regarding the alleged defective alternators. Here, Nissan's releases the information requested by ODI and agrees to start the alternator recall.
It's nice to know that some of our tax dollars actually do end up going toward something that protects us, the motoring public.