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Six things you should know about auto recalls

Feb 25, 2015

Nearly 64 million recall notices were sent to car owners in 2014
Credit NHTSA/ibtimes

Recalls of automobiles for safety and other defects are up.

In 2014, automakers recalled a record 63.9 million vehicles in the U.S., more than any year in history. 

That means about 25% of the cars on the road were the subject of at least one recall in 2014.

It's too soon to say if 2015 will again be a big year for car recalls, but one expert says an increased number of recalls is likely to be the "new normal" for the industry.

Does the increase in recalls mean vehicles are becoming less safe?

No.  There is widespread consensus among auto safety experts that vehicles are safer than ever before.  Declining traffic injury and fatality rates back this up. 

Widespread adoption of seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones, electronic stability control and other technologies have dramatically improved the safety of the average vehicle. 

Competition among automakers to achieve five-star safety ratings from the federal government and top rankings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have made safety a prime focus for every car company.

Recalls are going up mainly because of an increased focus on vehicle defects.  Federal safety regulators are applying more pressure on automakers to issue recalls swiftly, and automakers are being more proactive.

Who decides if and when a car will be recalled?

In most instances, automakers voluntarily issue recalls.

But about a third of the time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pressures an automaker to issue the recall.

Car companies are obligated by law to inform the government of a known defect within five days of deciding to issue a recall. 

The decision to issue a recall doesn't mean customers with affected cars can always get them fixed right away. 

Sometimes, it takes months for automakers to get an adequate supply of parts to dealers.  That's the case right now with a recall involving vehicles with Takata airbags.

More than 8 million vehicles in the U.S. have the potentially defective airbags, but the supplier can only make replacement parts at a rate of about 450,000 a month.

How do car companies and the government discover potential problems that might require a recall?

Car companies and the federal government collect a large amount of data related to the performance of vehicles, from many sources. 

One of the biggest sources is individual car owners, who can file complaints on NHTSA's website. Other sources include dealer service reports, warranty claims, as well as police accident reports.

NHTSA requires automakers to file documents known as Early Warning Reports on a quarterly basis, identifying potential or actual safety issues. 

Recent scandals show the consequences to both the public and the automaker of not taking action on signs of problems in these reports.  

Toyota admitted it had delayed a recall related to unintended acceleration in 2009. 

Last year, General Motors admitted it had delayed a recall of small cars with defective ignition switches for a decade. Both companies faced Congressional inquiries, negative press, and large fines.

The scandals played a large role in getting NHTSA to focus more attention on potential safety problems, as well as automakers working harder to get ahead of problems and issue recalls more swiftly.

What is a Technical Service Bulletin?

Technical Service Bulletins are primarily intended to address what automakers call "customer satisfaction" issues, rather than safety issues.  Dealers use the bulletins to check a customer's car for the problem, when the customer brings the vehicle in for maintenance. 

While notice of a recall is sent directly to the owner, Technical Service Bulletins are sent only to dealers. 

Sometimes, a car company will issue what it calls a "Customer Satisfaction Campaign."  This is a recall, but generally it's not for a defect involving safety.

How can I find out if my car has been recalled?

Automakers send letters to owners of recalled vehicles, and many times they will follow up with second and third letters, as well as emails and phone calls from dealers.   

However, cars change owners, and owners move from place to place, so those notices are not always received. 

You can type your car's VIN number into a search engine on NHTSA's website to find out if there is a recall on your car.  You can also search for technical service bulletins for your car, as well as file or view individual complaints.

There is also an app for Apple and Android smartphones that will alert car owners of recalls for their vehicles.

Recall completion rates, or, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

Automakers aim for 100% completion of repairs on recalled cars, but typical rates range from 60% to 85%.

Most of the time, the failure to remedy a defect is because the owner never followed up on the notice.

Owners of older cars are less likely to follow up on a recall notice.

Automakers are increasingly turning to social media to try to boost completion rates. As Internet-connected infotainment devices in cars become more common and sophisticated, automakers will be able to send notices of recalls directly to the vehicle.