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What to do if you get a car recall notice

Photo by Milles Studio/Stocksy/stock.adobe.com Photo by Milles Studio/Stocksy/stock.adobe.com

If you get a recall notice, should you be especially concerned? The answer: probably not. But you should make arrangements to have the problem fixed in a timely manner.

Why do recalls happen?

Recalls occur only after an automaker or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determines that there’s an issue with a car that could pose a safety hazard.

They’re an equal-opportunity problem for all automakers, even the most highfalutin. Recent luxury marques on the NHTSA website include Ferrari (possible brake-fluid leak), Mercedes-Benz (engine control unit software error), and Tesla (false forward-collision warning).

Automakers also may initiate “customer satisfaction” or “product improvement” campaigns to fix problems that aren’t imminent safety risks to a car’s occupants or other motorists, such as infotainment-system problems or paint flaws. But those, by definition, aren’t recalls, and the NHTSA won’t be involved.

Recalls are an imperfect system

In a sense, you should be reassured that your car has been recalled because potential safety issues are being addressed.

At times, however, the media and Congress have accused some automakers and NHTSA of being tardy about issuing recalls, putting folks’ lives in danger.

In 2014, for example, General Motors belatedly recalled millions of its cars for faulty ignition switches, which caused 124 deaths and 274 injuries. And years before issuing a recall, Honda and NHTSA knew that faulty airbags made by Japanese supplier Takata exploded, killing 19 people and injuring more than 400. NHTSA subsequently demanded a national recall of tens of millions of Takata airbag–equipped vehicles from 9 other automakers as well.

Just as disturbing, NHTSA data show that some 25% of recalled vehicles don’t get fixed. Owner laziness or stupidity? Perhaps. However, owners often are unaware of a recall.

Automakers attempt to reach current owners of a recalled car by letter or through a dealer that services the car. But if a car was purchased used and is maintained by the owner or an independent shop, the automaker may not know how to contact the owner.

How to find out if your call has a recall

NHTSA makes it easy to search for recalls by the make, model, and year of a car.

You can also sign up to have recall alerts sent to your phone or computer. And NHTSA recently made it possible for car owners to see if there are any open recalls on their own vehicles. To do so, you’ll need your car’s 17-digit VIN (vehicle identification number), which can be found on the registration and on the dash, behind the lower left corner of the windshield.

NHTSA also has a free SaferCar app for iPhone and Android operating systems that lets car owners know about recalls. To access any of these services, go to NHTSA’s website, safercar.gov.

Also, it’s wise to keep an automaker informed of your ownership information if you buy a used car or change your address. Most manufacturers supply postcards for this purpose in the car’s owner’s manual packet.

Automaker requirements in a recall

Sure, a trek to the dealer and doing without your car for a day or two can be a pain in the derriere. But NHTSA says a recall repair must be free of charge to the vehicle owner—with a couple of caveats:

  • After a recall is issued, an automaker typically will pay for a repair only if it’s made by one of its authorized dealers.
  • An automaker isn’t required to make a free repair if 10 years have passed since the car was first sold—although it may do so anyway to engender goodwill.

Veteran automotive journalist Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades.

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