Vehicle Recalls

AUTOMOTIVE RECALLS—What You Need to Know

Recently, the media has been filled with news stories about automotive recalls involving millions of vehicles equipped with defective ignition switches, exploding air bag inflators, or diesel engines that don’t pass emissions standards. Over the years, numerous recalls have affected nearly every automobile manufacturer. In the past 50 years, almost 400 million cars, trucks, buses, RVs, and motorcycles have been recalled to correct safety defects, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.

Vehicles have become much safer over time, of course, 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; in recent years, about 33,000 people have been killed annually in car crashes on U.S. roads. 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 exactly what is a recall, who decides if a recall is needed, and how are recalls conducted? The answers depend on the type of recall. Here we’ll consider two categories of recall: recalls for safety defects, and emissions-related recalls.

Recalls for Safety Defects

NHTSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is responsible for issuing vehicle safety standards and recalling vehicles that fail to meet those standards or have safety defects. Recalls typically happen in one of three ways: They can be voluntarily initiated by a vehicle manufacturer, influenced by NHTSA investigations, or ordered by NHTSA through the courts.

Generally speaking, 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, problems with electrical wiring 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, known as ODI, or to vehicle manufacturers. NHTSA staff looks at every complaint to determine whether it seems to be an isolated incident or represents a possible trend. However, a recall investigation can be triggered by a single event if it is serious enough.

How Are Safety Recalls Conducted?

First, NHTSA’s Defects Assessment Division, or DAD, screens consumer complaints and other relevant information. If it decides a safety-related trend exists, it informs an ODI panel, which chooses whether or not to open a safety-defect investigation. NHTSA also reviews petitions from anyone who asks to open a safety-related investigation. If the petition is granted, NHTSA opens an investigation.

Investigations are conducted in two phases. In the preliminary evaluation, ODI considers additional information to determine if further analysis is warranted. ODI may close the investigation because it decides further investigation isn’t needed, or because the manufacturer decides to 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 conduct a recall. If ODI identifies a safety defect, the carmaker can present new analysis or data. If it’s not persuasive, ODI sends the carmaker a recall request letter.

Finally, NHTSA’s Recall Management Division maintains the administrative records for all safety recalls and monitors them to ensure that the scope of the recall and the completion rate and remedy are adequate.

Reporting a Safety Problem and Dealing With Recalls

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

  1. By calling NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Hotline, 1-888-327-4236
  2. Online at NHTSA’s vehicle-safety Web site, safercar.gov
  3. By sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, Office of Defects Investigations (NVS-210), West Building, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, D.C. 20590.

If a vehicle is recalled, automakers are required to notify vehicle owners and fix the problem at no charge to the owner. 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 figures, some 25 percent of recalled vehicles never make it to dealers for repairs.

Technology to the rescue—on NHTSA’s website, vehicle owners can search for recalls by selecting a car’s make, model, and year. They also can find out if open recalls exist on their own car by entering its vehicle identification number. NHTSA even has a free SaferCar app for iPhone and Android operating systems that provides real-time vehicle safety information.

Emission-Related Recalls

Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, have the authority to issue emission-related recalls if vehicles that are in use fail to pass stringent emissions tests on a dynamometer (a treadmill for cars). These are the same tests used to certify new cars for sale; they’re carried out by driving a vehicle on a dynamometer to simulate the way it’s driven on the road. These aren’t the same tests as those used for periodic state-run inspection and maintenance (Smog Check) programs. They’re far more stringent and use much more sophisticated emissions test equipment.

California generally takes the lead in identifying when emission-related recalls are needed. CARB performs in-use compliance testing of 40 to 50 vehicle model “engine families” per year and also keeps track of warranty repairs to emission-related components. If CARB determines that a particular model of vehicle tends to fail in-use emission standards, either by failing the in-use compliance testing or having been subject to multiple emission-related warranty repairs, it will order a recall. Often, a manufacturer will identify when a threshold for emission-related warranty repairs is about to be reached and will conduct a voluntary recall before CARB forces one to be issued.

In California and other states that have adopted California’s emission standards, if a vehicle is included in an official emissions-related recall, motorists will be notified on the annual vehicle registration renewal from the Department of Motor Vehicles.1 The renewal form will state the vehicle owner will be required to show a recall “proof of correction.” If they don’t, they won’t be able to renew their vehicle registration. Motorists who receive such a notice should take their vehicle to an authorized dealer, which will make the repairs and issue a proof of correction certificate that’s returned to the DMV.


Whether a recall is safety- or emissions-related, AAA recommends that motorists have necessary repairs completed as quickly as possible. Doing so could save their life or the life of a loved one where a safety recall is concerned, and protect the environment in the instance of an emission-related recall.

1California Department of Motor Vehicles Health and Safety Code §43009.5