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Understanding Car Recalls: Safety and Your Vehicle

Vehicle safety recalls happen more frequently than you may think. In fact, recalls are common. In 2022, almost 1,000 recalls were issued, affecting more than 30 million cars.1 Even so, safety recalls can be daunting and confusing. Knowing how to navigate the recall process may help you feel more at ease.

What is a recall on a car?

Manufacturers do their best to ensure vehicles and equipment are safe and pose minimal risk to drivers. Unfortunately, some issues are not discovered until the vehicles are on the road. 

A safety recall is issued if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the car manufacturer determines that a vehicle or its equipment does not meet the minimum vehicle safety standard. This is a process designed to address safety-related defects or non-compliance with safety standards. So, what is a recall on a car? It is essentially a formal request to return a product, in this case, a vehicle, to the manufacturer for necessary repairs or adjustments to ensure the safety and functionality of the vehicle.

NHTSA is the agency that regulates vehicle safety standards and oversees vehicle recalls in the United States. Manufacturers can voluntarily initiate recalls, or recalls can be initiated by the NHTSA through their investigations. NHTSA will continue to monitor the manufacturer to ensure the successful completion of the safety recall.

Common faulty vehicle parts

Historically, car recalls have been associated with the following faulty parts:

  • Steering column: Sudden failure of the steering column, causing partial or complete loss of vehicle control.
  • Fuel systems: Crash damage to the components, possibly causing vehicle fires.
  • Wiring systems: Defective wiring, which may cause fires or loss of lighting.
  • Tires: Blowouts leading to loss of vehicle control
  • Airbags: Non-deployment in a crash or deployment in non-crash situations.
  • Engine fan belt: Sudden breaking of the fan belt, possibly resulting in injury to someone working on the vehicle.
  • Seats/seat backs: Failure during normal use.
  • Car seats and booster seats: Ineffective buckles or components that create the risk of injury.
  • Car ramp/jack: Collapse of the ramp/jack, possibly resulting in injury to someone working on the vehicle.

What happens if your car is recalled?

You’ve received a recall notice, so what’s next? To avoid accidents, breakdowns or injuries, it’s important to address the recall notice as soon as you receive it. Here are some tips for handling your recall.

Immediate steps

  1. Read through your recall letter carefully: You’ll be provided with an explanation of the recall and how it affects the safety of your vehicle.
    Tip: You’ll want to make note of any interim safety precautions laid out by the manufacturer. Be sure to confirm you can still drive your vehicle while you await repairs.
  2. Contact your dealership: The letter will detail how to repair the problem, when repairs will be available and where they can be done. You’ll also be informed of how long the repair should take. 
    Tip: Contact your dealership or service center immediately to schedule an appointment. By getting in early, the dealer is more likely to have the parts needed to make the repair.
  3. Schedule repairs: Your repairs will likely be completed by a local dealership or authorized service center.
    Tip: Keep a record of the completed work, along with any receipts and recall documentation.

To find out more specifics about car recalls, read NHTSA’s “Motor Vehicle Safety Defects and Recalls” guide.

Understand the rights and responsibilities of car owners

  • By law, dealers are only required to make free repairs on new cars, typically cars 10 years old or newer. If your car is more than 10 years old, repairs may not be free of charge. If the dealership refuses to repair your vehicle or attempt to charge you for the repair, contact the manufacturer immediately.
  • If you’ve already paid to fix this issue, it’s likely you can be reimbursed. Due to the limitations on reimbursements, it’s best to contact your manufacturer to determine if you’re eligible for reimbursement.
  • Car recalls do not expire; however, manufacturers may charge a fee depending on the age of your vehicle. Contact the manufacturer to determine if you’re eligible for free repairs.
  • The availability of a rental or loaner vehicle is at the discretion of the dealer or manufacturer. Many recall repairs can be completed in one day; therefore, alternative transportation may not be needed.

Long-term implications of a car recall

Failing to complete the recall repairs could have long-term consequences. You may have trouble selling the vehicle, you may see increases on insurance premiums, and, most importantly, you’ll put yourself and others at risk.

If you’re concerned your vehicle may have been part of a recall, you can enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) into the database on the NHTSA website. The VIN is a unique, 17-digit number assigned to your vehicle. You can find the VIN on insurance documents, your registration, or inside the driver’s side dashboard or door jamb.

Check the NHTSA database for recalls regularly, or you can sign up for recall alerts. The NHTSA website has a public database where consumers can submit formal complaints. If enough people report the same issue, NHTSA will open an investigation.

To avoid a delay in receiving a recall notification, make sure your contact information is up to date with the car manufacturer.

Ensuring safety beyond a car recall.

No matter the severity of your recall, it’s important to act quickly. Unrepaired car recalls could put you and others at risk. Addressing the repairs promptly can create peace of mind and safety on the road.

Safety doesn’t stop at addressing recalls. Prolong your car’s life and ensure a safer drive with simple DIY maintenance.

NHTSA 2022 Annual Report Safety Recalls

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