Auto Safety Recall 101

Vehicle recalls are at their highest in almost a decade, says U.S. News & World Report. From Takata to GM, even current safety recalls just keep expanding. (In fact, the Takata airbag recall is now the largest auto recall in U.S. history and has affected more than 100 million vehicles worldwide!)

If you think your car may have been recalled, or at least part of it, here's what you need to know. From the definition of a vehicle safety recall to what to do if a dealer tries to charge you for a recall repair, we'll give you the information you need to handle the situation from start to finish.

What is a vehicle safety recall?

A vehicle safety recall is issued when a vehicle, type of vehicle equipment, or part of a vehicle, does not meet Federal safety standards. Both auto manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have the authority to issue recalls. When a safety-related defect is discovered, the auto manufacturer is required to file a public report that describes:

  • The defect or non-compliance with Federal safety standards
  • The vehicle/equipment affected
  • Any events leading up to the recall being discovered or determined
  • A description of and schedule for how the manufacturer is resolving the issue

How do I find out if my vehicle has a recall?

Check your mailbox

If a safety recall has been issued for your vehicle, you may have already been notified by mail, as auto manufacturers are required to attempt to notify owners and typically do so via mail. When it comes to vehicle recalls, manufacturers will typically merge their purchase records with current state vehicle registration records in order to locate any affected owners. (Hint: That's another reason to ensure that your contact information is correct on your vehicle registration!)

If the safety recall is related to a piece of equipment, like a windshield wiper or cosmetic button, (where state records do not exist), the manufacturer will notify stores and other known purchasers of the equipment.

Check online or call NHTSA

Even if you've never received notification of a safety recall via mail, it's a great idea to double check online. More than 47 million vehicles have at least one open safety recall, says CarFax. That's about one in five vehicles out on the road today! You can find out if your vehicle has an outstanding safety recall by:

  • Visiting SaferCar.gov and entering your vehicle's VIN number
  • Calling the Auto Safety Hotline of the NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236
  • Contacting your vehicle manufacturer

Worried that your car is too old to be included in this data? Don't be. The NHTSA has recall data for all cars sold in the United States dating back to 1966.

My vehicle has a recall. What now?

First, don't ignore it. Even minor recalls can involve life-threatening defects and failure to respond to a recall notice might void a warranty. Second, don't hop in your car and head to the dealership right away, as they likely won't be able to complete the repair in that moment. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

If you were notified by a letter in the mail, read the letter carefully. It should tell you what you need to know, including what's wrong with your car; what the potential risks may be; potential warning signs; how the manufacturer is fixing the problem; when the repair will be available; and instructions for what to do next.

Typically, this involves scheduling an appointment with the nearest dealership once replacement parts are available. Depending on the type of recall and the availability of parts, it could take weeks to months for the repair to be made. Many auto manufacturers are not prepared with enough replacement parts, and many dealers aren't prepared with enough technicians.

Are recall repairs free?

Yes. You do not need to pay for recall repairs. According to NHTSA, the statute of limitations for no-charge recall repairs is 10 years from the original sale date of the vehicle. If the dealership tries to charge you for your recall repair, the NHTSA advises:

  • Contacting the dealer service manager. Explain the situation and point out that the work is required as part of a safety recall. If possible, show them the letter you received in the mail as well. This will often resolve any misunderstanding.
  • Contacting the vehicle manufacturer. Look for the toll-free customer service number in your car's owner's manual. Describe the problem, name the dealership, and the steps you've taken to resolve the issue. They will look into the matter and will likely resolve the issue within a few days.
  • Contacting the NHTSA. If you still feel like your recall has not been properly dealt with, call or email the NHTSA. Their phone number is 1-888-327-4236.

What if I'm not the original owner of the vehicle?

Regardless of whether or not you're the original owner, you still qualify to have your recalls repaired free of charge (even recalls that were announced before you bought the car). Since manufacturers merge their own records with state vehicle registration information, it's likely that you'll still be notified of a recall, regardless of whether or not you're the original owner. Still, there are steps you can take to help ensure that you're notified.

First, if you bought the car used from a private owner, call the manufacturer and let them know you're the current owner. Their manufacturer's customer service phone number can be found in your owner's manual or online. The manufacturer will record your name and address, along with your car's VIN, in their database for further communication.

Is a safety recall the same thing as a technical service bulletin?

No, a vehicle safety recall is not the same thing as a technical service bulletin (or TSB). TSBs are issued by the auto manufacturer for less serious problems and are not typically readily available to consumers. According to Edmunds.com, TSB repairs are only made to resolve problems that are verified by dealer service technicians. These bulletins include repair instructions for technicians and updates to protocols.

Direct's Commitment to Vehicle Safety

Insurance companies around the country have been asked to help raise awareness for this important safety issue. At Direct Auto & Life Insurance, we're committed to providing affordable auto insurance, but we're also committed to helping our customers stay safe while they're out on the road. If you think your tires, vehicle, or vehicle parts may have been recalled, enter your VIN at SaferCar.gov to quickly learn if a specific vehicle needs to be repaired.

Vehicle Recall Resources


Auto Safety Recalls 101
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