What you need to know about vehicle safety recalls

In the past 50 years, almost 400 million cars, trucks, buses, RVs, and motorcycles have been recalled to correct safety issues, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Vehicles have become much safer over time, but there’s still room for improvement. According to NHTSA, traffic crashes are the No. 1 cause of debilitating injuries and the No. 1 killer of Americans under the age of 34. One effective way to improve vehicle safety is through recalls: identifying unsafe vehicles and getting them repaired or off the road as quickly as possible.

What is a safety recall on a car? Who decides if a recall is needed? How do you check if your vehicle has been recalled, and what do you do if it has? 

What is a vehicle safety recall?

Vehicle safety recalls are the most common type of recall to hear about on the news, but not all mechanical issues lead to a recall, and not all recalls are safety-related.

  • A vehicle safety recall is a request to return vehicles to the manufacturer because of safety issues or a product defect. It's an effort to limit both consumer injury and company liability through the repair or replacement of the defective vehicle. Safety recalls are paid for by the manufacturer, regardless of whether the vehicles are still under warranty or not.
  • A technical service bulletin is a recommended procedure for repairing a vehicle. They're usually issued in response to the widespread occurrence of a mechanical problem and contain advice from the manufacturer to mechanics regarding how to fix it. In some cases, repairs may be covered by the manufacturer “service campaign," which provides free or discounted repairs, even if the warranty has expired. The kinds of issues covered by technical service bulletins can usually be resolved during regularly scheduled maintenance.
  • An emissions-related recall is a request to return vehicles to the manufacturer because they're failing to meet emissions standards in real-world use. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have the authority to issue emissions-related recalls if vehicles fail stringent emissions compliance tests, or if large numbers of emission-related warranty repairs point to a problem. Like safety recalls, emissions-related recalls are paid for by the manufacturer.
How do safety recalls begin?

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 one of three 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 two 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.

How do I know if my car is recalled?

If a vehicle is recalled, automakers are required to notify vehicle owners and fix the problem for free. However, automakers might not have the necessary information to contact car owners, and owners may be unaware that their car has been recalled. This may be why, according to NHTSA, some 25% of recalled vehicles never make it to dealers for repairs.

Vehicle manufacturers may notify the owners of affected vehicles by mail. The notices read, “Important Safety Recall Information" in red and black, along with the phrase “Issued in Accordance with Federal Law," and images of U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA logos on the envelope.

The easiest way to check if there are recalls on your vehicle is to search at NHTSA's Safercar.gov website. The most precise way to check is to search by VIN number, since sometimes recalls only affect a subset of vehicles—for example, only ones from a particular factory or assembly line. You can also search by vehicle make, model, and year.

What do I do if my car is recalled?

If there's a safety recall for your vehicle, AAA recommends that you contact your local dealer and have the necessary repairs completed as quickly as possible. Doing so could save your life or the life of a loved one.

Remember to ask if you're entitled to a rental car while the repairs are conducted. Keep a copy of the work for your records. Owners who move residences should notify the vehicle manufacturer by using the postcard many manufacturers provide in the warranty booklet, or by giving the dealer the new address so that notices and other information can be sent to the new home.

How can I report safety problems?

If you think your vehicle has a safety defect or other problem, you can report it to NHTSA in three ways:

  • By calling 1-888-327-4236
  • Visiting Safercar.gov
  • By mail, addressed to: U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA Office of Defects Investigations (NVS-210), West Building, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, D.C. 20590.