NHTSA's Process for Issuing a Recall

Safety-related defects

The United States Code for Motor Vehicle Safety (Title 49, Chapter 301) defines 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 manufacture, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacture.

How can I report a safety problem to NHTSA?

If you think your vehicle or equipment may have a safety defect, reporting it to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is an important first step to take to get the situation remedied and make our roads safer. If the agency receives similar reports from a number of people about the same product, this could indicate that a safety-related defect may exist that would warrant the opening of an investigation. In order to make it convenient for consumers to report any suspected safety defects to NHTSA, the agency offers three ways to file such complaints. Please go to the Report Your Safety Complaint page on the safercar.gov website.

NHTSA investigative Process

Agency technical experts review each and every call, letter, and online report of an alleged safety problem filed with NHTSA. Although NHTSA has no jurisdiction over defects that are not safety-related, it does review each report that suggests a potential safety defect involving groups of motor vehicles or vehicle equipment. There is no established number of reports that must be filed before NHTSA investigates an issue. The agency's Office of Defects Investigation investigative process consists of four parts:

  • Screening -- A preliminary review of consumer complaints and other information related to alleged defects to decide whether to open an investigation
  • Analysis -- An analysis of any petitions calling for defect investigations and/or reviews of safety-related recalls
  • Investigation -- The investigation of alleged safety defects
  • Management -- Investigation of the effectiveness of safety recalls.

Safety Recalls

A safety recall involving a motor vehicle or an item of motor vehicle equipment can be independently conducted by a manufacturer or ordered by NHTSA. In either case, the manufacturer must file a public report describing the safety-related defect or noncompliance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard, the involved vehicle/equipment population, the major events that resulted in the recall determination, a description of the remedy, and a schedule for the recall. NHTSA monitors each safety recall to ensure the manufacturers provide owners safe, free, and effective remedies according to the Safety Act and Federal regulations.

How will I be notified if a recall is ordered or initiated?

Manufacturers are obligated to attempt to notify owners of recalled products. For vehicles, that means manufacturers merge their own records of vehicle purchasers with current state vehicle registration information. For equipment, where state registration records do not exist, manufacturers are obligated to notify their distribution chain and known purchasers of the recalled equipment. However, even if you do not receive a notification, if your vehicle, child restraint, or other item of equipment is involved in a safety recall, the manufacturer is obligated to provide a free remedy.

To learn more or to get answers for most commonly asked questions about complaints, investigations, and recalls, and to learn about your rights and responsibilities when a vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment is recalled, please download the Motor Vehicle Defects and Safety Recalls: What Every Vehicle Owner Should Know (PDF) document.

NHTSA's new search tool lets you enter a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to quickly learn if a specific vehicle has not been repaired as part of a safety recall in the last 15 years.
Search Recalls by VIN