Automotive recalls have dominated the headlines in recent months, with some of the nation’s largest carmakers, particularly General Motors and Toyota, embroiled in extensive campaigns that affect hundreds of thousands of vehicles.
Still, virtually all automakers – even some of the lowest-volume exotic makes like Rolls-Royce, Lotus and Lamborghini – have issued at least one recall over the last two years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, during 2013 the auto industry recalled close to a third more vehicles in the U.S (22 million) than it sold (over 15 million). Recalls were up by a whopping 25 percent last year, which is industry’s highest rate since 2004, when 30.8 million vehicles were involved in such programs.
Worse, not only have recalls become all-too commonplace, a disconcerting number of consumers seem to be ignoring them altogether. More than 3.5 million used cars hit the market with unresolved recalls on their records last year according to the used-car title search company Carfax in Centreville, Va. “Open recalls are a major public safety issue,” says Larry Gamache, communications director at Carfax. “In fact, our research indicates that more than one in ten used cars for sale online has an open recall.”
Automakers usually conduct recalls voluntarily for safety-related defects based on their own research, though sometimes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandates then based on investigations spurred by owner complaints and/or accident data. Sometimes they are made to resolve serious issues that could lead to crashes, injuries or even fatalities, while others are more benign, such as when the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ sports cars were recalled in 2012 to replace a few pages in their owners’ manuals.
When a recall is issued the manufacturer is required to contact every owner of record for that particular model by mail. If you haven’t been officially notified (perhaps you’re the second or even third owner of the car) and/or suspect your vehicle is part of a recall campaign, you can check the NHTSA database at safercar.org or call the Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 to see if its involved. You’ll need to have the applicable car or truck’s identification number (VIN) on hand, which is noted both on the car’s title and on the driver’s side dashboard or on the driver’s side doorjamb.
If you’re buying a used car, be sure to have a title search conducted (or at least check with NHTSA) to learn if there have been any past recalls and to ensure they have been properly resolved.
If the car is less than 10 years old, federal regulations mandate the automaker provide free repairs (or, in extreme – and extremely rare – cases, replace the affected vehicle). Fixes are typically made via any authorized dealer service department regardless of where the vehicle was originally purchased, though it may take some time to have this accomplished based on the number of models being recalled and/or parts availability. If you’ve already paid to have a covered defect fixed, you may be able to recover the cost.
Depending on the nature of the recall, you may want to limit driving it until the repair is completed; in rare instances an automaker may inform owners to leave the vehicle parked until a dealership to resolve the issue.
Because too many consumers tend to mistake recall announcements for junk mail, NHTSA is mandating that manufacturers begin using a distinctive label with the phrase, “important safety recall information issued in accordance with federal law,” prominently displayed to distinguish future notifications from other automaker-related missives. “Recalls only work if consumers are aware of them,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This new label will allow consumers to quickly recognize recall notices mailed to their homes so they can act quickly to get their vehicles fixed.”