We'd like to think that our vehicles roll off the assembly line in tip-top, absolutely perfect shape. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Whether it be Honda, Ford, or BMW, pretty much every vehicle manufacturer has had to deal with recalls over the years, from airbags to faulty brakes.
Now, that's not to say that manufacturers are purposefully selling us all lemons. In fact, when an automotive issue is discovered, most automakers step up to not only communicate the problem, but make it right.
Recall notices are pretty common, but they don't always mean there's something directly wrong with your vehicle. They can actually mean quite a few different things, so let's take a look at everything you need to know about car recalls.
First Things First: What Does a Car Recall Mean?
Recalls don't just pop up out of thin air, although for some drivers, it may seem as though recall notices are issued pretty frequently. In the past five years, car manufacturers have issued between 30-50 recalls annually.
Safety recalls come from drivers just like you. When accidents occur, or issues are discovered over the course of normal daily driving, consumers are encouraged to report these issues to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
In some cases, the problem is a one-off issue. Even though automakers adhere to high standards of manufacturing and take quality control very seriously, defects occur. We've all driven that one car that had unprecedented quirks that defy logic.
However, if many people report the same or very similar safety issue with the same make and model of vehicle, the NHTSA steps in to conduct an investigation. The NHTSA reviews each complaint to determine if the situation vehicle owners have reported goes against safety standards.
According to The United States Code for Motor Vehicle Safety [Title 49, Chapter 301], the definition of minimum safety standards is pretty reasonable:
"The performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in a way that protects the public against unreasonable risk of accidents occurring because of the design, construction, or performance of a motor vehicle, and against unreasonable risk of death or injury in an accident, and includes nonoperational safety of a motor vehicle."
Basically, your vehicle should not try to kill you. Fair enough.
What Does a Recall Notice Mean to Me?
Once a safety-related defect is identified, the car manufacturer should send all car owners impacted a letter to explain both the problem and the recommended remedy.
So, what if you're not the original owner of a vehicle, and you bought a used car from some Craigslist stranger? You're probably not going to get that vehicle recall letter. That being said, you do have plenty of opportunities to learn about any potential recalls or issues.
NHTSA.gov is a wonderful resource for looking up a variety of safety reports and records. You can also download the Safercar app for Apple or Android, which will allow drivers to look up vehicles by vehicle identification number (VIN number) to determine if any safety defects might apply to you. Another way to find out more about any recalls is to contact your local dealer. Even if you didn't purchase your vehicle from that particular dealership, they can provide you information regarding any vehicle recalls for a particular manufacturer.
What Should I Do If I Receive a Recall Notice?
If you discover you own a recalled vehicle, it's important to take a look at the information sent to you by the manufacturer or on Safercar.
In most cases, a safety recall will provide further instructions, such as who to contact and what type of remedy is recommended. In most cases, you'll be instructed to visit a local dealership with factory-certified technicians who are able to perform the required recall work on behalf of the car manufacturer. Frequently, the part or parts impacted by the recall notice can be easily repaired or replaced.
In rare cases, the vehicle will be repurchased or refunded, meaning the manufacturer has determined the situation cannot be repaired with a simple fix. In these cases, you'll need to start looking for a new car.
Federal law requires that safety recall repairs are performed free of charge. This means you don't have to pay to have the manufacturer's boo-boo corrected. However, that does not mean that you receive compensation for any accidents related to the issue, or any lost wages while you can't drive your recalled vehicle.
Additionally, since the burden of remedy is placed on the dealerships, you may find yourself on a significant waiting list for your free repairs.
Do Car Recalls Expire?
This is a great question for anyone who has purchased a used car. While dealerships are required to disclose open recalls on vehicles, your Joe Regular selling a car from his driveway may have absolutely no idea whether or not a recall has been issued.
If you are looking at purchasing a used car from a private party, be sure to use the Safercar app to look up the VIN number, as well as search online for any consumer reports that might provide adequate warning of open recalls.
Technically speaking, there is no expiration date for recalls; however, there is a statute of limitations for taking advantage of those free repairs. NHTSA regulations specifically state:
"In order to be eligible for a free remedy, the vehicle cannot be more than 15 years old on the date the defect or noncompliance is determined."
So, if you discover your elderly vehicle has an open recall, it is very important to get the recall repairs done. They just won't be free after the 15-year period.
No one wants to think about their vehicle being potentially unsafe, but safety issues can be discovered throughout the life of your vehicle. When the NHTSA uncovers a problem, the manufacturer will notify owners. At any time, you can investigate any potential issues with your vehicle by visiting Safercar.gov, or downloading the app.
Driving safely is everyone's goal, which is why staying abreast of any safety recalls on your vehicle is a great idea for everyone on the road!
This post was originally published on June 24, 2021.