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What is a automotive recall and how does it happen?

Recently General Motors has been pummelled by bad publicity about it's refusal to recall a minor, inexpensive part, even though it knew it might lead to unsafe conditions of the cars affected.  Supposedly 13 or more deaths occured because of  defective ignitions.  If the car went over something like a speed bump that jarred the ignition switch it would cause the car to cut off.  The vehicle would then lose all power to the brakes, steering, windows etc.

What exactly is a recall and what are your rights if your car is recalled?

Anything you ca buy can be recalled - e.g. baby seats, batteries, and of course, automobiles.

An automotive recall is how a manufacturer tells you that you may have a car that presents a risk of injury or property damage.  These recalls are intended to fix known problems with vehicles in order to keep roads and people safe, since car accidents are the largest killer of Americans under the age of 34, and about 42,000 deaths are recorded each year on U.S. highways (source:  Office of Defects Investigation (ODI)).  Some of those lives could be saved by repairing unsafe vehicles or removing them from the roads.  But who has the authority to do something like that?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sets the national safety standards for vehicles and can influence or order an auto manufacturer to repair safety-related defects at no cost to the consumer.  Even if the fix is something as minor as a missing washer or a faulty electrical connections, the manufacutrer stands to lose millions of dollars in the process -- it all depends on the number of cars and trucks affected by the recall, the cost of the replacement parts and the time it takes a technician to make the repair.  So, as you can imagine, the automotive industry sometimes resists the idea of undergoing a full-scall recall.

With that in mind, how does an automotive recall begin?  And, other that the NHTSA, is there anyone else involved?

Starting U.S Automotive Recalls:  Contacting the NHTSA

Some auto manufacturers make the first move when discovering potential faults or hazards in their cars or trucks, willingly starting the recall process on their own.  Other companies need a little push from the NHTSA or even the courts to start the recall process.  The NHTSA recall process often starts when people discover flaws in vehicles they own or work on.  If you find a potential hazard in your car or truck, you can get in touch with the NHTSA and report your safety concerns.

There are three methods you can use to contact the NHTSA if you suspect a safety-related defect in your vehicle.  You can take any or all of the following actions:

  • Call the U.S. Department of Transportation's Vehicle Safety Hotline:  (888) 327-4236 or (800) 424-9153, toll free from anywhere in the US, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
  • Report the issue online at the NHTSA's vehicle safety Website:  http://www.safercar.gov
  • Send a letter via US Mail to:  U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office of Defects Investigation (NVS-210), 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC  20590

If you file a complaint, there's a chance you may be contacted by an investigator from the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI).  The ODI, an office within the NHTSA conducts defect investigations to support the NHTSA's efforts.  But that's not all it does.  ODI investigators keep a close watch on manufactures' recall operations too.

If enough consumers file a report about the same issue with the same make, model and year of vehicle, the NHTSA may decide to open an investigation.

John C. Gayle, Jr.
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Consumer Law Pioneer and Co-Author of Virginia's Lemon Law