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What is a Safety Recall?

What does it mean when a manufacturer initiates a safety recall involving vehicles or items of motor vehicle equipment?

A safety recall involving a motor vehicle or an item of motor vehicle equipment can be independently conducted by a manufacturer or ordered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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. 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.

Each notification letter must contain the following information:

  • describe the defect or noncompliance;
  • the risk or hazard posed by the problem, including any warning of the problem;
  • a brief description of the free remedy, including when the remedy will be available and how long the repair will take; and
  • a description of what the owner can do if the owner is unable to have the problem corrected within a reasonable time and without charge.

Remedy without charge means the repair, replacement, or repurchase of the vehicle or item of equipment that will correct the safety defect or noncompliance. The manufacturer initially decides what the remedy will be, but it may be changed if it is not effective. Owners should have the recall work completed as soon as possible. Recalls involving tires are specifically limited in the Safety Act such that the owner must have the recall work completed within 60 days of receiving notification that it must be done. All other safety recalls are in effect for the life of the product.

The Safety Act does not provide for reimbursement for damages that the defect or noncompliance may have caused. However, owners may be able to recover such expenses privately. Historically, most manufacturers will reimburse owners for the costs of repair incurred before the safety recall, if the owner has kept the receipts for service.

What to do if you are unable to have the recall work done or have it done without charge.

In the vast majority of cases, dealers perform safety-related recall repairs promptly and correctly. However, from time to time, problems do occur. We can categorize these problems broadly as an inability to have the recall work done or to have it done without charge.

When you receive a letter from the manufacturer of your vehicle notifying you that your car has been recalled, you should contact your dealer's service department to arrange for the recall repair. If you then have problems in obtaining the free recall repair, you can contact NHTSA immediately as explained below under Step 3. However, it is usually quicker to attempt to resolve the problem using Steps 1 or 2.

Step 1: Contact the dealer service manager

The first step is to contact the dealer service manager. You should explain the situation to the manager, identifying the work required as part of a safety recall. If you have the manufacturer's notification letter on the safety recall, it will help explain your concern.

In the vast majority of cases, this will resolve any problems. However, if you do not feel the service manager has answered your concerns completely, then you should contact the manufacturer, Step 2.

Step 2: Contact the Manufacturer

To contact the manufacturer, call the telephone number (usually toll-free) that is provided in the letter sent to you notifying you of the recall. You can also find the telephone number for the manufacturer's local representative or toll free customer service number in the back of the vehicle owner's manual. Once again, you must describe the problem you are having and usually the following information:

  • The make, model, and model year of your vehicle and the vehicle identification number (VIN);
  • Briefly describe the recall and the problem you are having;
  • Identify your dealer and what steps you have taken with the dealer to resolve the matter.

The manufacturer will look into the matter and should be able to resolve your concern within a few days.

If you believe that you are unable to have the recall work completed without charge, then please contact NHTSA, Step 3. You should also contact the NHTSA if you believe that the recall work has not corrected the safety defect.

Step 3: Contact NHTSA

Contacting NHTSA is easy. You can write us, call us toll-free, or connect with us over the Internet. Our address and toll-free telephone number are provided in every recall notification letter. You can write to us at: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE, West Building, Washington, D.C. 20590. Our toll-free telephone number is (888)DASH-2-DOT (1-888-327-4236). To contact us over the Internet, simply go to our interactive web site at www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/ivoq/ and complete the questionnaire.