August 22, 2016

What You Must Know About Car Safety Recalls

Millions of people are affected by car and car equipment recalls every year. If you haven’t already had to deal with a recall, there’s a good chance that you will eventually.

Either a manufacturer or the NHTSA may issue a public safety recall when either party determines that a vehicle or a piece of motor vehicle equipment, such as a child car seat or tire, presents a safety risk or does not meet minimum safety standards after the car or equipment leaves the manufacturer and is sold.

The manufacturer is required to notify owners in the event of a safety recall and to fix or remedy the safety problem free of charge.

You may remember the Bridgestone/Firestone recall of the 6.5 million tires that came standard on Ford Explorers and other sport utility vehicles. Forty-six reported deaths and hundreds of injuries involving three models of the 15-inch tires led to the recall, issued in 2000.

In 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a record year, with 803 total vehicle recalls involving 63.9 million vehicles. The two largest car recalls that year involved the Ford Motor Company. Twenty-one million vehicles were recalled for a parking gear problem and another nearly 8 million vehicles were recalled for an ignition problem.

2014 also marked the year of the largest car seat recall in history. Child car seat manufacturer Graco recalled more than 6 million car seats because the harness buckle would become stuck in the latched position, making it difficult to remove the child in case of an emergency.

The biggest single automotive recall to date began in May of 2015 when airbag manufacturer Takata admitted a defect in its airbag inflators–which had been installed in cars from model year 2002 through 2015. Thirty-four million vehicles, from 21 manufacturers, were placed on the Takata recall list. Repairs are still ongoing due to the sheer numbers of recalled vehicles and new cases may emerge.

How to Find Out About New Car and Equipment Recalls

When you purchase a new vehicle from a manufacturer’s dealer, your vehicle will be registered with them and most often, they will notify you of a safety recall using the mailing address listed on your most recent vehicle registration (one of the many reasons to update your information soon after a move).

When you purchase tires or car seats, be sure to fill out the registration card that came with the product and return it to the manufacturer so that you can be easily notified of a recall.

According to a 2015 report by Safe Kids Worldwide, only 42% of owners completed and returned that postage-paid registration card provided with new car seats, not realizing the main purpose of the card is for contacting families in case of a safety recall. Because of that knowledge gap, the report found that fewer than half of the recalled Graco car seats were actually fixed.

Safe Kids recommends that you fill out the registration card or register the product on the manufacturer’s website. This way, the manufacturer can notify you of any recalls by mail and email. You should also take a photo of the car seat’s model and serial number label so that you’ll have easy access to this information in case you need to report a safety problem or initiate a recall fix.

And regardless of whether you receive a notification for a manufacturer, the NHTSA advises that you check for car safety recalls twice a year. You can search for recalls on the NHSTA Recalls, Complaints and Technical Service Bulletins Lookup Tool using the make, model and year of the car or equipment. Or, you can enter your car’s unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the NHTSA Recalls Lookup Tool.

How to Find Out About Used Car Recalls

Although new cars cannot be sold with an open recall, used car dealers and private individuals selling used cars are not required to disclose or fix any recall problems.

Therefore, when considering the purchase of a used car, the NHTSA encourages buyers to use both of their lookup tools to gather as much information as they can before making a purchase decision. You will even be able to see Technical Service Bulletins from the manufacturer which outline fixes for known problems. All of this information can help you make an informed purchase decision.

To be absolutely sure you never miss a recall notice, you can download the NHTSA Safer Car mobile app for Apple or Android smartphones and tablets.

How to Handle a Recall Notice or an Outstanding Recall

A manufacturer involved in a recall may repair the problem or replace the equipment. At other times, they may offer financial compensation or even buy back the vehicle, but this is rare.

I used the NHTSA Recall Tool to check whether any recalls had been issued for my used 2008 Hyundai Elantra. I found that my model year had three serious safety recalls, the most recent of which was issued in 2015:

  • The electric power steering assist could become disabled.
  • The stop lamp switch could fail, possibly affecting the brake lights, cruise control, push-button start, the gear shifter and the Electronic Stability Control system.
  • The driver’s side airbag could deploy at an incorrect pressure.

These three problems were also listed in complaint after complaint, many of which involved an accident. All of the recall defects are required to be inspected, corrected or updated by the dealer free of charge so I called up the nearest dealer and made my appointment for the free fixes.

Note that the description of the repairs can be tricky. A manufacturer may propose what’s called an “interim” fix or a “like for like” repair, as is the case for the Takata airbag inflator recall. Because 34 million repairs take a long time to complete, Takata is offering an “interim” solution (a newer version of the same inflator with less likelihood of failure) to make the cars safer to drive immediately.

The NHTSA advises that even though “like for like” replacements eventually have to be updated, you should always accept the interim repair because it will increase your vehicle’s driving safety while you wait for the permanent fix. They also suggest that you follow up with the dealer on when the permanent fix will be available and that you make an appointment as soon as it is available.

If you’ve received a recall notice, read it carefully and follow the instructions on how to have your vehicle evaluated and fixed. Note that safety recalls are not mere suggestions. They indicate that your car or equipment has serious safety defects that could lead to an accident. Therefore, you should contact your dealer as soon as possible to have them fixed for free.

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