Nicholas (not his real name) finds himself in a dilemma when buying his first car. While surveying the market, he finds claims by manufacturers on the safety and performance of the vehicles; he also finds groups formed by car buyers expressing their anger and frustrations on safety and performance after purchasing their cars.
Nicholas is unsure whether buying the car of his choice is a sound investment, for a significant proportionate of his salary goes to repaying the loan and maintaining the car.
Making matters worse, a few weeks ago his friend's brand-new car broke down, and his friend had to frequently visit the service centre without any permanent solution. Despite the risks, Nicholas needs the car as public transport connectivity and reliability is still poor in his area.
The scenario Nicholas faces is very much the reality faced by many consumers in Malaysia. The lack of effort and protection against unsafe and underperforming vehicles is a serious issue.
This is clearly seen in the series of safety recalls in the vehicle sector, such as the fatal air bags, unintended acceleration and faulty ignition cases. These incidents have seriously affected the confidence of consumers in vehicle safety.
In the event of a serious design flaw affecting safety, an effective product recall should be initiated, as well as a corrective action mechanism for the benefit of consumers be put in place.
However, there are too many stakeholders with overlapping functions in the automobile sector, posing difficulty in compliance, surveillance and overseeing vehicle safety for consumers.
The National Consumer Complaints Centre (NCCC) of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca) proposes that there should be a single authority that oversees, monitors, and regulates the safety and performance of road vehicles, similar to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
We need an effective authority that initiates and monitors recalls, a critical stakeholder in informing public and engaging producers, conducting continuous market surveillance for vehicle parts, as well as a competent authority to look into services like workshops and service centres - all under one roof.
NCCC has received complaints of potential losses in the automobile sector valued at almost RM81 million in 2015, ranging from issues like new car faulty, warranty, defective parts and misleading advertisements.
Article 32 of the Consumer Protection Act states that goods (including vehicles) that are supplied to consumers shall be implied a guarantee that the goods are of acceptable quality. There is a certain level of expectation in terms of quality and performance when a consumer purchases a brand new vehicle.
However, this is not the case for the second highest number of complaints received by NCCC in 2015. Despite numerous complaints by the purchasers to the car seller representatives, issues such as reverse sensor not working, engine malfunction and wheel alignment were not resolved.
Consumers had no choice but to send their cars for repair, repeatedly, without a clear permanent solution. What is worse, these repairs would cost even more after the warranty period.
We need to initiate regulatory reform
In addition, during the repair period, no courtesy car is given - possibly disrupting the day-to-day activities of the car owner.
We need to initiate regulatory reform to include strong warranty laws, such as the Lemon Law in the United States and Singapore. Lemon laws are laws that protect consumers against defective products that do not conform to acceptable quality or performance standards at the time of the purchase.
Such products are known as ‘lemons’. Consumers can demand for repair, replacement and refund for these defective products, based on a set of criteria, within a significant time. The inclusion of this law into Malaysia will definitely benefit our consumers and subsequently, compel manufacturers to produce better vehicles.
In addition, our recall system in the automobile sector must be improved. Besides establishing one competent authority, as suggested, relevant agencies must adapt a national standard on recall, which has been recently published.
The Malaysian Standard MS 2626: Consumer Product Safety and Recall - Guidance in the Supply Chain is a comprehensive standard that provides practical guidance for enterprises of all sizes to assess and manage the safety of products they sell.
The guide includes suppliers that do not design or supply products but are still responsible in their safety. This standard assists not only the producers and suppliers but also the authority to effectively monitor, assess and take necessary actions to protect the consumer.
All stakeholders must do their part in ensuring that vehicles bought by consumers do not become a liability economically or pose harm to their lives. Purchasing a vehicle is a commitment - maintenance, repaying loan, fuel and toll all play a big role financially and influence the consumer’s quality of life. We must do o more for our road users!
SHABANA NASEER is senior manager, legal and policy, Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca)/National Consumer Complaints Centre (NCCC).