These days, auto recalls are a big concern for drivers. For example, a recent airbag recall affects 1 in 7 cars on the road. It's not just air bags, either; recalls can be for a number of defects, including electrical problems, steering issues, brakes and other safety concerns.
Over the years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has forced manufacturers to recall a variety of vehicles and equipment. NHTSA issues a recall when a "vehicle, equipment, car seat, or tire creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards."
In 2014, NHTSA issued 803 recalls affecting 63.9 million vehicles. There were 81 recalls for equipment, affecting 2.2 million vehicles, as well as 13 tire recalls affecting 368,720 tires.
"A recall is a very specific designation, not to be confused with technical service bulletins or what automakers call customer convenience campaigns or some other twist," says Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com's executive editor. "Even though it could be argued that some of these campaigns should be recalls, the word recall means the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the manufacturer itself has declared it as such."
The manufacturer must fix the problem by repair, replacement, refund or (in rare cases) repurchasing the vehicle.
"A true recall is, by definition, safety related," says Wiesenfelder. "It's always a free repair."
He says manufacturers are required to notify owners within 60 days of the recall announcement. If the car is registered, an owner should receive notification by mail.
Drivers should make sure their vehicles are registered and that the manufacturer has their current contact information, especially a mailing address.
*Get It Fixed!
Consumer Reports, a nonprofit organization, cites the statistic from Carfax that 36 million cars on the road have uncompleted recall work. According to a 2012 NHTSA-sponsored survey, between 21 and 25 percent of the problems covered by recall notices from 2006 to 2010 weren't fixed.
It's important for consumers to get the recalls fixed, since leaving the vehicles unrepaired could result in road hazards.
"The worst case is the driver is at risk of harm, or harming others," says Wiesenfelder. "Even if it's something less critical, the owner could spend money repairing a clearly broken item that the manufacturer would be paying for if the owner were aware of the recall."
While new cars can't be sold with unrepaired recalls, there's no law requiring used cars to be fixed before being resold.
"I suspect efforts like these will continue; whenever there's a high-profile recall and associated congressional hearing, lawmakers raise this issue," says Wiesenfelder. "NHTSA has also become much bolder in the past two years, so there will be pressure from that end."
*New Recall Notification
A new NHTSA mandate aims to get consumers' attention about the importance of recalls. Now manufacturers must use a distinctive label when notifying vehicle owners about recalls. That way the mail won't be mistakenly thrown out, recycled or mistaken for junk mail. The message on the new label? "Important Safety Recall Information," written in red.
NHTSA even has "SaferCar" apps for Android and Apple devices, providing consumers with free access to important information about recalls and vehicle safety. Owners can also submit safety complaints via the apps.
Drivers can sign up online for NHTSA email notifications, or they can check SaferCar.gov to complete a recall search. They can enter a car's make, model and year and then read up on the vehicle's history -- including complaints, investigations, service bulletins and recalls.
Another option is to do a search for the vehicle identification number on SaferCar.gov. Owners simply enter their cars' 17-digit VINs to see whether any recalls exist for their vehicles.