Helping Consumers Navigate Vehicle Recalls

By Amanda Essex | Vol . 25, No. 16 / April 2017


Did you know?

  • More than 900 recalls were issued in 2016, affecting 53.2 million vehicles.

  • Seventy-three percent of newer vehicles are repaired when there is a recall, compared to 44 percent of older models.

  • Used vehicles may be sold even if they are subject to a recall.

Each year, millions of Americans purchase new and used vehicles with the expectation that those vehicles are safe. When defects or safety issues are found in a vehicle, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues a recall. With more than 50 million vehicles recalled in 2016 alone, the federal and state governments are boosting efforts to increase consumer awareness about recalls.

Recalls are intended to keep consumers safe and are issued when it is determined that a vehicle, car seat or tire presents unreasonable safety risks or does not meet minimum safety standards. There were 927 separate recalls affecting 53.2 million vehicles in 2016, surpassing the 869 recalls on 51 million vehicles in 2015.

While NHTSA cannot precisely identify how many recalled vehicles are unrepaired, a J.D. Power and Associates estimate from 2016 puts the number at more than 45 million. The analysis found that the rate of repair for recalls was higher for newer vehicles (73 percent for model years 2013 through 2017) and lower for older models (44 percent for model years 2003 through 2007).

When a recall notice is sent to a vehicle owner, it is up to that person to take the car in to be repaired; there is no enforcement mechanism requiring that the vehicle be repaired. Used vehicles may be sold even when they are subject to a recall. A person who purchases a used vehicle may not be aware that it has been recalled but not repaired.

Many people have heard about the Takata air bag recall. Vehicles with Takata air bags were subject to recall because of a defect that could result in the air bag inflator exploding. As of October 2016, these air bags have resulted in 11 deaths in the United States. Vehicles manufactured by 34 carmakers were subject to the Takata recall as of December 2016 and to date, more than 13 million airbags have been replaced.

Federal Action

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act included provisions addressing motor vehicle safety recalls. One provision created a pilot program to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of making vehicle owners aware of recalls when they register their cars or trucks. Up to six states were eligible to receive the grant, for a total amount of up to $2 million. Applications have been received by NHTSA and are under review.

In developing the pilot program, NHTSA sought feedback about states’ vehicle registration processes and the potential challenges of instituting a recall notification program at the time of registration. Concerns were raised about shifting the recall notification duty from manufacturers to the states, but NHTSA made it clear that its intent was not to shift the obligation to states, but rather to supplement recall notices.

The FAST Act also requires improving the availability of recall information, promoting public awareness of safety recalls and informing vehicle owners about recalls by electronic notification in addition to first-class mail. Finally, the act requires a report on the feasibility of including an indicator in new vehicles that would alert the owner when the vehicle is subject to a recall.

Congress considered, but did not enact, the Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives Act (RECALL Act) in 2015. It would have mandated that the state agency responsible for vehicle registration require owners of recalled cars or trucks to have repairs made before being allowed to renew their registration. The bill would have withheld 5 percent of federal highway funds from states that did not comply with the requirements. Another bill considered would have prohibited a dealer from selling a used vehicle until any defects were repaired.

NHTSA’s allows people to search their car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to see whether it is subject to a recall. Car owners can also sign up for notification emails that will inform them if their vehicle has been recalled. 

State Action

In addition to federal efforts, a few states have begun debating how to help make consumers aware of vehicle recalls. California enacted legislation in 2016 creating the Consumer Automotive Recall Safety Act. The legislation requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to include the following recall disclosure statement on a vehicle registration renewal notice: “NOTICE: Many vehicles have been recalled recently for needed repairs. Did you know you can check to see if your vehicle has an unrepaired manufacturer’s safety recall? For most vehicles, manufacturer safety recalls are repaired for free. You can check for any recalls and how to get the recall repaired at” A prior version of the legislation would have required a notice specifically indicating whether the vehicle had been recalled but not repaired, but the legislation was amended to require the general disclosure statement.

New York considered legislation in 2015 that would have required vehicle owners to be notified of a recall when they had their vehicle inspected. This legislation passed one chamber but was not enacted. Similar legislation has been introduced in the 2017 legislative session.



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