NHTSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is responsible for issuing vehicle safety standards and recalling vehicles that fail to meet them or have safety defects. Recalls typically happen in 1 of 3 ways:
- A manufacturer discovers a problem and voluntarily initiates a recall
- A manufacturer learns that NHTSA is investigating a possible safety issue, or receives a letter from NHTSA requesting a recall, and voluntarily initiates a recall
- NHTSA orders a recall through the court system
Generally, a recall is warranted when a vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment doesn’t comply with a federal motor vehicle safety standard, or when a vehicle has a safety defect. Examples of safety defects include seats or seatbacks that fail unexpectedly in normal use; electrical problems that result in a fire; and defective steering components that break suddenly, causing drivers to lose control of their vehicles.
Most recalls are started by complaints that motorists submit to NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) or to vehicle manufacturers. NHTSA staff looks at every complaint to determine whether it's an isolated incident or part of a trend, though a recall investigation can be triggered by a single event if it's serious enough.
Investigations are conducted in 2 phases:
- In the preliminary evaluation, ODI considers if further analysis is warranted. ODI may close the inquiry if further investigation isn’t needed or because the manufacturer decides to voluntarily conduct a recall.
- If further analysis is needed, ODI gathers additional information for a more thorough engineering analysis. ODI either closes the investigation if it doesn’t find a safety defect or if the automaker decides to voluntarily conduct a recall.
If ODI's engineering analysis identifies a safety defect and the carmaker has not already initiated a recall, the carmaker can present new analysis or data. If it’s not persuasive, ODI sends the carmaker a letter requesting a recall.