How to Handle Car Recalls

An insider’s guide to NHTSA recalls

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues a vehicle recall, the announcement usually makes headlines. And, if it seems like you've been seeing more headlines like that recently, you’re right!

Approximately 25 million cars were recalled in 2014 because of defective airbags alone. In fact, 2014 was the biggest year ever for vehicle recalls, with more than 52 million cars and trucks affected by recall notices. Put simply, 20% of vehicles on U.S. roads were the subject of vehicle recalls in 2014.

The growing number of auto recalls makes it more important than ever for car owners to know why car recalls happen and what they can do when they receive a recall notice.

What is a recall?

Simply put, a recall is a manufacturer’s call for a repair to the vehicle or a part of a vehicle.

What prompts an auto recall?

If a vehicle or equipment on a vehicle threatens public safety or fails to meet federal safety standards, the auto manufacturer or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will issue a recall. The Office of Defects Investigation receives consumer complaints and oversees recalls.

What parts of a vehicle can be recalled?

Under the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, regulators can recall a vehicle for not meeting safety requirements on many different parts of a vehicle, including tires, airbags, seatbelts, child restraints, warning devices, seating and more. If a part of the car or piece of equipment does not meet the minimum safety standard, it can be recalled.

Who issues the recall?

Many automakers recall vehicles voluntarily. However, in some cases, the agency will investigate claims of a defect. If that investigation uncovers an actual defect, the agency may ask the courts to order the manufacturer to launch a recall.

Are all car recalls the same?

The purpose of a recall is always the same – to repair a vehicle part that is either faulty or does not meet safety standards.

Examples of safety-related recalls include:

  • airbags that deploy accidentally
  • wiring that causes taillights to go out
  • flaws that cause the steering column to fail.

Because recalls are often voluntary, automakers may use terms like, "safety improvement campaigns" or "regional recalls" to describe these efforts.

Who pays for recall repairs?

When your car is recalled, the repairs to your car will be completed at no cost to you, if your car is less than 10 years old. If your vehicle is more than 10 years old and a recall is issued, your safety may be at risk. In that case, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends you have your car repaired at your own expense.

How common are car recalls?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was given the power to issue recalls in 1966. In the years that followed, recalls have been issued for:

  • 390 million cars, trucks, buses, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, and mopeds
  • 46 million tires
  • 66 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment
  • 42 million child safety seats

That’s a lot of vehicle repairs made to protect drivers, passengers and the public!

How will I know if my car is recalled?

If your vehicle is being recalled, you will receive a letter by mail along with follow-up notifications every three months for 18 months.

How can I check for recalls on my car or equipment?

To find whether your vehicle, child restraints, tires or equipment are being recalled, you can use the search tool at safercar.gov. If you know your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), you may also use the VIN search for recalls affecting your vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety also offers email alerts and a mobile app for download in the AppStoreSM or Google Play®.

I got a recall notice. What now?

Contact the dealership and ask a service manager to schedule the repair. It’s possible that when recall notices were sent, replacement parts were not available, so it may not be possible for the dealership to get you in for repairs right away. Unless the recall notice advises you not to drive the car — something that happens only rarely — you should be able to continue using your vehicle until the repair is complete.