A recall notice can catch car owners by surprise and raise immediate questions. What does it mean for your safety and the safety of your vehicle? What steps do you need to take to repair the affected auto parts – and how quickly? By learning the answers to these questions, you can remedy the problem, safely get back on the road and stay informed of any future recalls.

Safety first

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), vehicle recalls were at record highs from 2014 to 2016, impacting almost 50 million vehicles each year.1 Two widespread and highly publicized recalls (vehicles with Takata airbags and General Motors vehicles with faulty ignition switches) helped drive those numbers.1 While not all recalls are as extensive – and in fact, recalls in 2017 dropped to their lowest level since 20131 – they do cover a broad range of parts and conditions that may affect your driving safety.

So, what prompts a recall? If a significant number of safety complaints have been filed about a particular vehicle model through the NHTSA website or toll-free hotline (1-888-327-4236)2 the administration launches a four-step investigation to determine if a recall is needed.3 According to the NHTSA, a recall is issued “when an automotive manufacturer or the NHTSA determines that a vehicle, equipment, car seat or tire creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards.”4 Within 60 days of reaching a decision with the NHTSA, manufacturers will mail a recall letter to all owners of registered affected vehicles.4

Recall notices

The recall letter contains important information: it must describe the potential safety hazard,3 and, in critical cases, the notice might advise owners not to drive their vehicle until it can be inspected.5

The letter also should explain how and when the problem can be remedied, and approximately how long the repair will take to complete.3 You might be instructed to first call the manufacturer at a national toll-free phone number or to contact a local dealership directly to schedule a free repair appointment.

Manufacturers are required to fix the problem for free on vehicles less than 15 years old by repairing the defect, replacing the part or entire vehicle with an identical or similar vehicle, or refunding the purchase price of the equipment or vehicle.3 If you’ve already paid to repair a problem that becomes the subject of a recall, you’ll need to contact the manufacturer to discuss potential reimbursement.3

To find out more specifics about recalls, read NHTSA’s “Motor Vehicle Safety Defects and Recalls” guide.

Keeping track

NHTSA statistics show that only about 75 percent of vehicles recalled in a given year are ever fixed.6 Thanks to online resources, it’s easier than ever to find out if your vehicle has an open safety recall. On the NHTSA’s recall webpage, you can type in your car’s unique 17-character vehicle identification number to search for your vehicle. Or, you can subscribe to the NHTSA’s email recall notifications so that new recall alerts for your family’s vehicles are sent directly to your inbox. Both outlets enable you to be proactive in keeping your car in top condition and your family safe on the road.

Keeping up with recalls is important, and as a general rule, you should make sure to take care of routine vehicle maintenance. Find out which features to regularly check.