Everything You Need to Know About Car Recalls

Car Recall

You never know when your car might be recalled.

From faulty airbags to improperly tightened bolts, there’s any number of reasons why a car might be recalled. A lot of folks are unsure of what to do about a recall, or even how to check if their car is impacted in any way, which is why we’re here to help you out!

Today, we’ll be running you through what a recall really is and how to deal with one, from figuring out if your car is impacted to how to cope with things if you do get the recall notice. It’s a process everyone should be familiar with!

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What Is A Recall?

To put it very simply, a recall is issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) when something has gone wrong with a car in such a way that it impacts performance and safety. NHTSA issues recalls for tons of car-related things: vehicles themselves, car seats, technology, tires, and more. While NHTSA is the main disseminator of recall information, most automakers willingly submit recalls if they find out some aspect of their vehicle is faulty.

Recalls can also be classified into two different categories: Safety-related or non-safety related. Safety-related defects are exactly what the name implies: an issue that poses a safety risk to the passengers inside. It can include problems like:

  • Gas or brake pedals sticking
  • Failure of steering components
  • Airbag faults
  • Wiring problems
  • Inoperable windshield wipers
  • Anything else that could result in injury to the passengers

Non-safety related recalls are often more cosmetic issues, ones that don’t impact safety but still represent imperfections in the manufacturing process, like:

  • Poor paint quality
  • Gapped body panels
  • Rust
  • Dysfunctional stereo, air conditioning, or heating
  • Improper wear on parts like shocks or brakes

In both cases, it’s important to get the vehicle taken into the shop to be fixed up.

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Car Recall

Photo: Erik McLean on Unsplash

How to Find Out About a Recall

In many cases, if your car has been recalled, you’ll receive a letter or phone call from your dealership letting you know and asking if you’d like to schedule an appointment to have the issue taken care of. In most cases, you’ll receive a letter, which will include a description of the problem, the risks or hazards it poses, warning signs, repair information, estimates for the time of repair, and what you can expect. That letter will obviously be a recall, with “Safety Recall Notice” and federal logos printed on the label.

But if you’ve moved, changed your phone number, are the second or third owner of a car, or simply are not receiving mail for some reason, don’t worry. You can input your vehicle’s 17-digit identification number, or VIN, on NHTSA’s recall page to check if there are any outstanding recalls available for your car. If you don’t know your VIN, you can find it in a few different places:

  • On the lower left of your car’s windshield
  • Your vehicle registration card
  • Occasionally, it is also shown on your insurance card
  • Driver-side door post, in the spot where the door latches
  • Driver-side door post, under where the side-view mirror would be located if the door was shut
  • Rear wheel well directly above the tire
  • Under the spare tire
  • Front of the car frame, near the windshield washer fluid
  • Front of the engine block, which you can see by popping the hood and looking at the front of the engine

This NHTSA Recall tool will show you any safety recalls issued for your vehicle in the past 15 years if you have not yet received repairs for that issue.  You will not be notified of non-safety recalls via NHTSA, nor will you be able to check if your vehicle was imported from a different country. But if you’ve purchased a vehicle in the United States in the last 15 years, you should be just fine.

Another great way to learn about recalls is to set up a search engine notification, especially if you’re a second or third owner of a vehicle. Many news outlets will report on a recall before you receive your letter or can find that information on NHTSA’s recall page. You can learn more about setting up a Google search alert here. Simply make your search term your make, model, and the word ‘recall’ to receive alerts. For example, you can set a search alert for “Hyundai Sonata recall,” and you will be notified any time that phrase appears in Google.

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How Does An Automaker Issue a Recall?

Generally speaking, automakers will issue a recall on their own after they start hearing complaints. Dealers and drivers will notify the company of any issues, warranty claims will start coming in, and factory workers will speak up about a component with subpar performance. When a pattern of complaints is identified, automakers will often do a deep dive into the product in question, subjecting it to rigorous testing to see if the issue is user error or a flaw with the car. If it turns out to be a flaw with the car, it’s fairly easy to track down all the cars impacted because of how diligently the manufacturing process is documented.

In other cases, NHTSA will have to do an investigation if it receives complaints and the automaker does not step up.

Car Recall

Photo: Eric Mclean on Unsplash

How Much Does a Recall Cost?

The simple answer to this question is: nothing. You shouldn’t have to pay a dime for any repair work that takes place due to a recall because it was the fault of the manufacturer.

That being said, federal law only requires free safety recall repairs for cars up to 15 years old, a time period which begins when it’s sold to the first owner. If your car is within that time period, you cannot be charged anything.

If your car is older than 15 years, though, you may have to pay. Most automakers will voluntarily provide a free safety recall repair on older vehicles, especially if those automakers have just now discovered the problem. But after 15 years, they aren’t required to pay.

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Can You Drive a Recalled Car?

The answer to this question depends on the nature of the recall. Sometimes, automakers will issue a ‘do not drive’ warning along with the recall or other specific instructions (such as moving your vehicle away from flammable objects if the battery is prone to lighting on fire). Most of the time, it’s up to the owner to decide if she’s comfortable driving the vehicle or not. If there is no ‘do not drive’ warning, it can generally be assumed that the vehicle is safe for performing essential tasks or for taking it to the dealership.

It’s generally best to look at some of the symptoms discussed in the recall. If the automaker is recalling a brake system because it can fail and it’s been harder for you to get your car to stop, you probably don’t want to drive it. If the automaker is recalling your vehicle over a windshield wiper failure and you haven’t had any issues or if it’s perfect weather, then you may make the decision to continue driving. It’s all up to your discretion.

What Happens During Repairs?

Repairs for recalled vehicles often vary in time. There are plenty of reasons why:

  • Your local dealership has not received the parts required to complete recall repairs
  • Your car has been recalled before there is a solution, in which case you will receive two notices: one when the car is recalled and one when you can initiate the repair process
  • Your car is part of a large recall that has everyone fighting for a spot at the dealership
  • The problem is intensive, which results in a long repair time—possibly even with the vehicle being sent back to the factory
  • The problem is a simple fix and can be done with an over-the-air update or an hour at the dealership
  • There’s a global pandemic happening, and the repair process is made all the more difficult

It’s all subjective. You’ll be best served by calling your dealership and asking them for more details. If it’s going to be a quick repair, make sure you know their COVID-19 protocols; you may not be allowed to wait in the dealership, or the dealership may do contactless pickup and drop-off. If it’s going to be a long repair, ask about loaner vehicles. In some very rare cases, the structural integrity of the vehicle is so compromised that the car has to be scrapped, which results in the automaker buying the car back from you or replacing your vehicle entirely.

Once you receive your vehicle, make sure you test it out. For example, if the brake system was acting up, you’ll want to test the brakes in the parking lot. Sometimes, the problem requires several trips to the dealership to repair. If you’re still having problems, talk to your dealership about options.

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Car Recall

Photo: Erik Mclean on Unsplash

What About Used Cars?

If you’re looking into purchasing a used car, things are a little different. It is totally legal for a person to sell a used car with an open recall. So, you’ll want to do a few things to make sure you’re coming from the right place.

The first thing you’re going to want to do is run the VIN number through NHTSA’s recall website. This will let you know if there are any outstanding recalls and what those problems might entail. If you’re buying from a used car dealership, you can request they address the recall before you take delivery. Some dealerships—and most private sellers—don’t have the ability to do this, however, and you may have to take care of the issue yourself.

Another option is to have a mechanic inspect the car prior to purchase—especially if you find the car has an unrepaired recall notice. It costs a little extra up front to have an inspection done, but you can rest easier knowing exactly what issues are there. After all, if your seller hasn’t fixed a recall, it’s likely they also haven’t stayed on top of routine maintenance.

I'm Elizabeth Blackstock, managing editor of AGGTC, blogger, journalist, novelist, editor, MA/MFA graduate student, wife, motorsport fanatic, and bearer... More about Elizabeth Blackstock