Takata airbags. GM ignitions. Unintended acceleration in Toyotas. We’ve all heard about these recalls, but what should you do when the car you depend on every day gets recalled? There are a few simple steps you should take that will help ensure minimal downtime for your primary transportation, while also making certain that it’s safe to drive.
First of all, we should look at what a recall actually is. While many technical defects will result in service bulletins or other voluntary repair actions by the car companies, recalls are a more serious level of oversight required for safety-related issues. Typically, a recall will be enacted for a safety defect in a vehicle or component of a vehicle that arose in the design or manufacturing process, as well as for vehicles or components that were not manufactured in compliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
That sounds like a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo? The essence is that if your car is subject to recall, it’s because of a potentially serious (i.e. life-threatening) safety issue that needs to be fixed. So how do you go about fixing it?
You might think that if you car is out of warranty, it won’t be eligible for repair under a recall—but actually, if an official recall has been issued, all current owners are entitled to have their vehicles repaired free of charge, regardless of warranty status. There is an age limit for cost-free recall repairs, however: if your car is more than 10 years old, it won’t be eligible—you’ll have to pay out of pocket. But don’t let that deter you—if it’s serious enough for a recall, it needs to be repaired.
Before anything repairs can happen, however, you’ll need to know your car is subject to recall. Fortunately, the car makers are required to notify all registered owners or purchasers of affected vehicles by mail. You might think that won’t help you if you bought your car used, but the companies are required to get the names of all current owners of affected vehicles from each state’s motor vehicle department—meaning that even second, third, and fourth owners of vehicles will be notified if their car is subject to a recall. If you think your car might be affected by a recall, but haven’t received any notice, you should call the Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236 or 800-424-9393, or look up your car’s make and model on the SaferCar.gov website.
When the notification arrives, you should pay close attention to the information presented in the recall letter. It will contain information about the problem, how and where to get the vehicle fixed, tell you when the fix will be available, and how long the repairs are estimated to take. The letter will also give you a point of contact should it prove difficult to get the necessary repairs done. From there, it’s a reasonably simple process of following the instructions in the recall letter to take your car to the place of repair (usually a nearby dealership).
While repair is by far the most frequent method used to solve a recalled safety issue, there are two other options that can be used by the car maker: it can replace the problem vehicle with an identical or similar vehicle, or it can refund the full purchase price. If it should be determined that your vehicle is not able to be repaired, or if the recall is such that repair is impossible in general, you may end up with a new car or the money you spent on the one you currently own.
Over the past 30 years, according to data compiled by iSeeCars and reported by Car and Driver, most carmakers have recalled about as many vehicles as they’ve sold—meaning that it’s very likely your car will be subject to a recall at some point in its life—but now you know what to do when that notification letter comes. For even more information on the recall process, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.
automotive freelance journalist