Automotive Recalls Explained

Since 1966, NHTSA has recalled more than 299 million motor vehicles.
Since 1966, NHTSA has recalled more than 299 million motor vehicles.
photo courtesy of Ford

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues automotive recalls to help make our nation's roads safer. Since 1966 NHTSA has recalled more than 299 million cars, trucks buses, RVs, motorcycles, and mopeds. In addition, more than 43 million tires and 84 million automotive accessories, including child seats, have been recalled for defects.

Recalls are necessary for a number of reasons. First off, today's vehicles are incredibly complex with many interacting electronic systems. The development cycles for vehicles are extremely compressed and can be as short as two years. With such a short gestation period, certain interactions or problems can go undetected in the development process of a new vehicle. As the new vehicles hit the streets, owners, manufacturers, and sometimes even NHTSA itself, discover potentially dangerous design flaws. NHTSA and the automakers work together to correct these design flaws through automotive recalls.

NHTSA-issued automotive recalls are generally safety-related defects that exist in a motor vehicle or an item of automotive equipment that poses a risk to motor vehicle safety. In other words, for a recall to be issued, there must be a safety risk. Examples include steering components that could fail, engine problems that could lead to a fire, electrical problems that might cause the engine to stall, or seatbelts that don't meet specific safety standards.

Consumers often confuse ordinary vehicle problems with automotive recalls. For example, a recall would not be issued for faulty air conditioners, body rust, paint blemishes, excessive oil consumption, or broken power windows. Though a problem may be common to a group of vehicles, if that problem does not pose a safety risk, it will not become a NHTSA recall.

NHTSA begins the automotive-recall process with an investigation. Most investigations are opened based on input from consumers or from manufactures. Once an investigation has been opened by NHTSA the manufacturer has an opportunity to present its views regarding the alleged defect to NHTSA. Based on input from consumers and a careful engineering analysis of the alleged defect, NHTSA may issue a recall.

If an automotive recall has been issued, manufacturers must notify, by first-class mail, all registered owners and purchasers of the affected vehicles of the existence of the problem and give an evaluation of its risk to motor vehicle safety. The manufacturer must explain the problem and instruct owners on how to have the problem resolved.

NHTSA also issues recalls on tires and child-safety seats.
NHTSA also issues recalls on tires and child-safety seats.
photo courtesy of Cosco

The automaker has three options for correcting the defect: repair, replace, or refund. For most vehicle owners that means a trip to the dealer. However in the case of a tire or child-seat recall, it may mean mailing in the defective item or heading to the original point of purchase, which may not have been a new-car dealership.

There are limitations on automotive recalls. Vehicle manufacturers are not required to perform free recalls on vehicles that are more than 10 years old. Consumers with vehicles that are more than 10 years old and have outstanding recalls are urged by NHTSA to have the recall work done at their own expense.

If you believe that your vehicle or automotive product has a safety-related defect, you can report the problem directly to NHTSA using the Internet by visiting NHTSA's home page at If you think your vehicle might be involved in an automotive recall you can call the Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4326 or call your local dealership--either way, have your vehicle identification number (VIN) handy.

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