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What you need to know about car safety recalls

Protect your legal rights if your car has a safety alert or recall.

According to the World Health Organization, vehicles sold in 80% of the world’s countries fail to meet basic safety standards. If something malfunctions, a car has the potential to inflict serious injury — or worse — on you, your passengers and fellow drivers.

Make sure your car is as safe as possible by keeping up to date on safety alerts and recalls.

What is a car recall or safety alert?

A safety recall is a notice from a car manufacturer regarding safety concerns about certain vehicles. They instruct owners to contact the manufacturer and arrange for a defective component to be replaced, or for the problem to be fixed. Recalls can also be created if a motor vehicle fails to meet federal motor vehicle safety standards and regulations.

A safety alert is often issued before a recall, notifying members of the public that their vehicle is under investigation and has a possible safety defect. The alerts warn of the possible risks that arise from using the car.

Getting your car repaired for a recall is free — as long as you go to the manufacturer’s local dealership.

Are car safety recalls common?

There have been several high-profile car safety recalls making news headlines over the last few years, but safety recalls happen all the time. Every year hundreds or thousands recalls are announced, affecting millions of vehicles.

Many of those recalls are minor, but a few have big impacts. For example, the Takata airbag recall alone affected over 5 million cars. Unless your car is a lemon, you shouldn’t have to worry about many recalls until your car hits the 10-year mark.

How will I know if there are recalls for my car?

You’ll typically receive a notification in the mail about a recall. Manufacturers must attempt to notify owners of vehicle and component recalls, but this can be tough for used vehicles or cars that have changed owners. Even if you don’t receive a notification, the manufacturer is required to provide a free fix if your vehicle or any of its components are involved in a safety recall.

Take these steps to be proactive about getting your car issues solved:

1. Update your vehicle title and registration.

If your vehicle is registered, your car manufacturer will contact you by letter to inform you of an active recall on your vehicle. Make sure your vehicle registration and mailing address are up to date so the manufacturer can easily track you down.

2. Search online for recalls.

Search the NHTSA website for recalls on your car using your 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN), typically found on your car’s windshield or registration card. But you want to check back at least twice a year — cars scheduled for future recalls won’t show up in the search right away.

Also, the NHTSA may provide a Do Not Drive list on its website. If your car model makes this list, you want to take it to the dealership immediately — driving with the broken part may cause serious injuries or damage. In the meantime, arrange for other transportation to your normal activities.

3. Sign up for recall email alerts.

You can also sign up for email notifications on the NHTSA website. The NHTSA also offers its SaferCar app to check for recalls automatically, sending notifications directly to your phone.

5. Schedule any repairs.

If your car is recalled, schedule a free repair with the manufacturer as soon as possible. That way you can avoid costly damage or injuries caused by a malfunctioning part.

What do I do if my car is recalled?

Once you’ve been notified that your vehicle is part of an active recall, contact your manufacturer to find out the next steps. In most cases, you’ll need to bring your vehicle to your local dealership. Manufacturers are required to provide customers with a free solution to the defect or issue and must address the situation within a reasonable time frame.

While the remedy is free, the manufacturer will decide how to address the issue depending on the nature of the defect:

  • Repair. The manufacturer will repair the defect free of charge. This commonly occurs for small, easily fixed defects and voluntary recalls.
  • Replace. The manufacturer will replace your car or defective components at no cost.
  • Refund. The manufacturer will refund your purchase (minus depreciation). Manufacturers and suppliers of equipment and parts are only required to repair or replace defective equipment, so refunds are only possible for entire vehicle recalls.

How quickly will my car be fixed?

The responsible car manufacturer or component supplier agrees with the NHTSA on a timeframe for replacing and fixing defective parts. The timeframe can vary depending on number of vehicles affected, severity of the issue and other factors, so it’s hard to say how long it will take for your car to be fixed.

However, all no-charge recall repairs have a statute of limitations of 10 years from the original sale date, even if the vehicle was sold to someone else. Plus, if you had a repair completed before a recall was issued, you might be able to get the cost of repairs refunded.

In the case of the Takata airbag recall, a particular generation of the airbag was deemed the highest priority. Car makers have to replace these within five days of receiving a replacement, though part and technician availability may delay the replacement. Cars over six years old receive the highest level of priority, and models under six years old have the lowest priority. The airbags on these models must be swapped by 2020.

If my car is recalled, do I get a replacement car?

If your car must be kept for more than a day, your manufacturer may offer a no-charge rental or loaner. However, automakers are not obligated to provide you a rental vehicle while your car is being fixed.

If you’re desperate for a temporary replacement, you may have better luck asking your dealership for a loaner car until yours is fixed. Or, ask your manufacturer to supply a ride to and from the dealership to get your car fixed.

Can a dealer sell a car with an active recall?

In most instances, no, a car dealership cannot sell a new car if it has an active recall in effect. For example, with the Takata airbag recall, companies have to replace the defective airbag before it can be offered for sale. There are penalties for failing to comply with this regulation.

If the car is under investigation and the dealer knows that the car will be recalled down the line, they must tell you. The information has to be given both in writing and verbally. However, private sellers are not required to tell you about the recall, so check with manufacturers and the NHTSA before you buy a used vehicle.

Jeffrey Johnson, a lawyer who writes and researches for, told Finder:

“If the car is used, there is no problem with a car being sold that has an active recall, at least in a private sale. Because active recalls include repairs at no cost, it isn’t unethical or illegal for a used car to be sold under these circumstances. The buyer of a used car may be well-advised to check for active recalls upon purchase, however.

“If the car is new, however, it is illegal for the car to be sold if there is an active recall. It may also be illegal for dealers who sell used cars to sell a vehicle with an active recall, depending on the state.”

Who’s responsible for issuing vehicle recalls?

Vehicle safety regulation in the US is administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in partnership with state and local governments. It’s tasked with identifying and resolving severe injury risks and fatalities that result from the use of a product.

It sets and administers safety standards for motor vehicles, monitoring each safety recall to ensure that owners receive safe, free and effective solutions from manufacturers.

How does the NHTSA find out about safety defects in cars?

Using a variety of data sources including safety reports, consumer complaints, market surveys and other metrics, the NHTSA ensures that vehicles meet the United States Code for Motor Vehicle Safety.

If a manufacturer or the NHTSA determine that a vehicle or part fails to meet safety standards or poses a safety risk, they may issue a recall. Depending on the severity of the issue, the NHTSA may also extend an international recall to cover countries outside of the US.

What are my rights if I get injured in a recalled car?

If you get hurt by a defective car part, you may get reimbursed for damage or injuries, even if the manufacturer hasn’t issued a recall. However, if you don’t get your car repaired but knew about the recall, that could affect whether you can get a payout.

While you’re waiting to iron out a settlement, you could file a claim on your car insurance if you have personal injury protection or medical expense coverage. If someone else caused your car accident, that person’s liability car insurance should pay your expenses.

Can I get a payout if I'm injured in a recalled car?

Jeffrey Johnson expands on when you can expect to get a settlement from the manufacturer:

“Typically, the rights that a consumer has depends on whether or not there is an active recall, if the company has issued a recall and complied with the notice requirements. Basically, if you were injured by a defective air bag (or anything else) before a recall is issued, you will be able to seek compensation for any harm caused by the defect. This includes repairs, injuries, and pain and suffering.”

“If there is an active recall and you are unaware of it because you have not received notice, you should be in the same boat. For example, a driver with a 2019 or 2020 Toyota RAV4 may not yet be aware of the recall involving the front suspension arm. If this defect caused an accident before the driver knew about the recall (which was only issued in May), they would have a right to recover as if no recall was issued.

“If, however, there is a recall and you knew but chose to not have the repairs made within a reasonable time, you may be barred from recovery or limited in what you can recover. Proving what you knew and when would become a question of fact, but for example, if the recall was a major news story for months in 2018 and you were in a wreck caused by the defect now, you might be stuck recovering for only the cost of repair and/or medical expenses. You might be barred from recovery at all.”

What should I do when a common problem hasn’t been recalled yet?

If your car is experiencing an issue that you think is dangerous, or if you’ve heard that it’s a common problem with your car, you can report it to the NHTSA. The organization screens all complaints, analyzes and investigates dangerous or common problems and initiates a recall if necessary.

To find out if a common problem is being investigated and/or the results of an investigation, check the NHTSA’s monthly reports.

Can I be reimbursed once a recall takes effect?

If you paid to fix a safety defect on your car that was later recalled, you may be eligible for reimbursement. The car needs to have been fixed on or after the NHTSA opened an analysis or one year or less prior to the manufacturer notifying the NHTSA of the defect — whichever is earlier.

To be reimbursed, you’ll need to have the receipts showing how much you paid for the repair and you’ll need to inform the manufacturer within 10 days of the recall notices being sent out.

How to handle a recall

  1. Check your VIN. Visit the SaferCar or NHTSA website and enter your VIN number to check if there are any active recalls on your vehicle.
  2. Contact your manufacturer. If your car has an outstanding recall placed upon it and you have questions, contact your vehicle manufacturer. There should be staff trained to answer questions about a recall. Also, by law, manufacturers must have a complaints handling procedure in place.
  3. Don’t ignore the recall. If you ignore a product recall, you could face an increased and significant safety risk. Don’t delay in contacting the manufacturer.
  4. Pass on new owner details. In some cases, you might receive a letter addressed to you as the owner of one of your previously sold or stolen vehicles. Make sure to contact the manufacturer to help them update their records and contact the current driver.
  5. Check if you’ve had previous work done on the car. If you’ve had work done on your car, perhaps after an accident where the airbags deployed, the dealership or garage may have installed airbags or other components that are now affected by a safety recall.
  6. Get it fixed. Once you’ve received notice that your vehicle is part of a recall, bring it to your dealership to have it fixed. If, for any reason, the dealer refuses to repair your vehicle or attempts to charge you for what should be a free repair, contact your manufacturer immediately.
  7. Watch for upselling. Recalls only apply to the components affected, meaning any other services that are not related to the recall will not be free.
  8. Ask about a rental. Manufacturers are not obligated to provide a rental vehicle while yours is being fixed, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

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Bottom line

Car safety recalls are more common than you might think, and they can affect millions of vehicles all over the world. While not all recalls pose a risk to your safety, it’s a good idea to be proactive by checking to see if your car is part of one. If your car is affected by a recall, contact your manufacturer or dealer and the problem will be solved for free.

Getting a car part replaced for free as part of a recall is always a bonus, and you can save even more on your car upkeep costs by sticking to your car’s regular maintenance schedule and comparing car insurance rates.

Frequently asked questions about car recalls

Pictures: Shutterstock

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