Car Recalls: How Do Cars Get Recalled?

Executive Summary/Key Takeaways 

  • Most car recalls are issued by the automaker.

  • Recalls are issued for safety problems and components that could fail prematurely.

  • Car recall checks, to find out if your car has outstanding recalls, are easy and free.

More than 390 million U.S. vehicles have been recalled for safety defects since 1966, when the federal government started overseeing recalls. And with almost 35 million vehicles recalled last year alone, the chances are quite high that a used car you’re considering has been affected by a recall.

What is a recall on a car? How can information about your car help the federal government? What’s the difference between a recall and a TSB (technical service bulletin)? Read on for the answers to these questions, and more.

How do car recalls work?

A car recall is a process that gets unsafe cars off the road and repaired. When a safety issue or flaw is identified in a significant number of vehicles, the owners of all such vehicles are notified to bring the vehicle to one of the automaker’s dealerships for repair. Owners of such vehicles are eligible for a recall repair even if the flaw or safety issue hasn’t yet been an issue for that particular car. 

How do cars get recalled?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal government’s safety watchdog over automotive safety, bases its recall actions on the ratio of the number of complaints made about a particular vehicle to the total number of vehicles produced. The NHTSA uses consumer information and complaints to launch the investigations that lead to recalls, and the agency also shares this information with automakers. Call 888-327-4236 to report a potential safety problem with your vehicle. The agency will mail you a form that asks for more information about your vehicle and permission for the agency to share your problem with the automaker.

If the number of defective vehicles is deemed excessive, the NHTSA will first open a Preliminary Investigation. Most Preliminary Investigations are closed after further investigation, but if the agency feels that more information is needed, an Engineering Analysis (EA) will be opened. The EA demands more information from the manufacturer and may involve independent testing and/or information collected by NHTSA officials. EAs are usually resolved within one year, sometimes leading to a recall request or order. The manufacturer may choose to contest the order in court, but most automakers wish to resolve the issue themselves by issuing the recall and notifying owners. 

Are recalls ordered by the manufacturer or the government? 

Most recalls are issued voluntarily by the auto manufacturer, prior to NHTSA involvement. However, NHTSA can issue the recall if the automaker does not.

What can be covered by recalls, and what isn’t? 

Anything relevant to safety is covered, as well as any major components that might be prone to premature failure. Recalls can also be issued for specific parts or accessories, like tires and child car seats. Items routinely replaced by maintenance, such as brake pads, batteries, mufflers, and fluids, are not usually covered by recalls.

What to do when your car is recalled?

If your car is recalled, you’ll receive a notice that informs you of next steps to take. You’ll most likely need to call your local dealership to make an appointment to repair the vehicle, and it may be unsafe to drive in the meantime.

How can you find out about your car recall?

You will be notified by mail if your vehicle is part of a new recall. If you want to find out if your vehicle has existing recalls, NHTSA’s website has a simple tool that offers information about all recalls.

Are car recall repairs free?

Yes. According to federal law, car recall repairs are free.

Is there a time limit on car recalls?

There is no deadline that applies to when drivers can bring their vehicles in for the recall repair, though since recalls usually pertain to safety, the sooner the better. Generally, manufacturers are allowed a 60-day grace period from the time of issue of a recall until the time that recall repairs begin.

What is a TSB (technical service bulletin)? 

If a manufacturer decides that the issue is a design issue or a common problem not pertaining to safety, a Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, may be issued. Manufacturers often will cover the cost of problems revealed in TSBs if the problem is particularly endemic, and even if they don’t, you will have a clear remedy for a common (and potentially frustrating) problem with your vehicle. Ask a technician at the dealership how common your problem is, and if you feel like your repair should be compensated, call the regional service manager (your dealership will be able to supply the number).

How can you find out if there are recalls or TSBs that apply to your car? 

The best way to find out about recalls and TSBs is again through NHTSA’s website. You may also search for consumer complaints similar to yours. Sometimes, TSBs might not be entered into the agency’s database for a few weeks, so for the latest information regarding service bulletins, car clubs that apply to your model are often the best place to check, or by just calling the automaker’s customer relations number.

Gary Pittam performs recall service on a Chevrolet Cobalt Thursday, April 17, 2014

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if my car is recalled and can’t be fixed?

According to Consumer Reports, in 2022, there were about 2 million vehicles recalled in the United States that did not have immediate solutions for repair. In some cases, owners of these vehicles were notified of steps they could take to continue using the vehicle safely, while others were told to stop driving, depending on the severity of the issue. If a vehicle is recalled but there isn’t a fix available, solutions range from getting a loaner vehicle from the dealership while a repair is developed, asking the automaker to buy back the vehicle, or potentially getting an attorney.

Can I get reimbursed if my car has a recall?

If you pay for a repair that is later part of a recall, you may be eligible for a refund, though you’ll need documentation for the repair. The information you’ll need to file a claim will be in your recall notice, though you will probably have only a short time to file.

How long does a recall take to fix?

That depends. If there’s a problem with parts availability, such as in the case of the widespread Takata airbag recall, it can take years. However, in most cases, your car will be in the dealership’s service department for just a couple hours.

What are the stages of the recall procedure?

When a recall is issued, owners of the recalled make and model are notified by mail. This notice includes information about the problem and what steps to take (such as whether or not you can continue safety driving the vehicle). Call the dealership that sold the car, or the dealership where you service the vehicle, and make an appointment for the recall repair.

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