Car care advice

Recalls: What They Mean and What to Do

What Is a Recall?

Recalls are issued when there is a safety-related defect or problem that prevents your vehicle from complying with Federal motor vehicles standards. When a manufacturer finds a defect, they are required by law to inform the government within a reasonable amount of time or face fines (like Toyota did in early 2010 for its slow response to the sudden acceleration issue). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) then issues and monitors the recalls to ensure that consumers have access to safe, free, and effective remedies.

Why Are Vehicles Recalled for Some Faults and Not Others?

Recalls are issued when there is a problem that compromises the safety of a vehicle's occupants. Vehicles are not recalled for non-safety related items such as defective radios, power windows, or air conditioning faults. While manufacturers may provide extended warranty coverage on these types of defects, no recall will be issued.

How Will I Know if My Vehicle Is Involved in a Recall?

Manufacturers mail recall notices to owners of recalled vehicles, but there is a chance you might not receive a notice in the mail if you have moved, if you purchased your vehicle used, or if your mailing address was entered incorrectly at the time of the sale.

What Determines if a Recall Happens or Not?

Vehicle manufacturers play a leading role in the recall process—many times the decision to conduct a recall is made voluntarily by the manufacturer, prior to any involvement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Through their own tests, inspection procedures, and information-gathering systems, manufacturers often discover that a safety defect exists or that the requirements of a Federal safety standard have not been met. However, over time, design and performance problems may occur that prompt vehicle owners to file complaints with NHTSA. This information is passed along to the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) and is used as part of their investigation.

The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is part of the NHTSA. The ODI conducts defect investigations and administers safety recalls. As part of its investigation, ODI carefully reviews consumer complaints, manufacturer's repair information, and other available data in order to determine if a defect trend exists. They will initiate a recall if the evidence warrants such action. The ODI also oversees manufacturer's recall campaigns.

What Is a Safety Related Defect?

A safety-related defect is defined by the United States Code of Motor Vehicle Safety as:

"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." A defect includes "any defect in performance, construction, a component, or material of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment."

Generally, a safety defect is defined as a problem that exists in a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment that poses a risk to motor vehicle safety, and may exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacturer, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacturer.

Examples of safety-related defects

  • Steering components that break suddenly, causing partial or complete loss of vehicle control
  • Problems with fuel system components, particularly in their susceptibility to crash damage, that result in leakage of fuel and a possible vehicle fire
  • Accelerator controls that break or stick
  • Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control
  • Engine cooling fan blades that break unexpectedly, causing injury to persons working on a vehicle
  • Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate properly
  • Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use
  • Critical vehicle components that break, fall apart, or separate from the vehicle, causing potential loss of vehicle control or injury to persons inside or outside the vehicle
  • Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting
  • Airbags that deploy under conditions for which they are not intended to deploy

Examples of non-safety-related defects

  • Air conditioners and radios that do not operate properly
  • Ordinary wear of equipment that has to be inspected, maintained, and replaced periodically. Such equipment includes shock absorbers, batteries, brake pads and shoes, and exhaust systems.
  • Nonstructural or body panel rust
  • Quality of paint or cosmetic blemishes
  • Excessive oil consumption

As you can see, recalls are a very complicated issue. Many owners would like to see recalls performed for every failed part, but according to the law, only safety-related defects are covered. If you discover a non safety-related vehicle defect that you suspect might be widespread, there are ways to report it. Always start with your local dealer. If the dealer cannot or will not help, then it's time to contact the manufacturer. The last resort is always the court system, but as we all know, that can be quite an undertaking.

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