What is a car recall?

New car buyers expect that everything in their vehicle will work as supposed to. While auto parts wear down over time, premature issues can also happen because of the manufacturer’s fault. In that case, a manufacturer must take full responsibility and issue a safety recall.

A recall is a free fix for a safety-related defect. These defects can be anything from faulty radio wiring to loose lug nuts. When a certain model receives a recall, its owners are notified by mail, email, or phone. However, only 75% of recalled vehicles are brought for repairs.

Why does this happen and how to be sure that your car is safe to drive?

When do recalls expire?

In general, all car defects must be fixed free of charge. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) checks all vehicles for safety flaws and orders to eliminate them at the expense of manufacturers. There’s an exception for tires though – tire-related recalls are only valid for sixty days after the date of issue.

NHTSA has the upper hand

Usually, there are two ways recalls roll out. Either a manufacturer notifies NHTSA after finding flaws in their vehicles, or NHTSA finds them first and informs the manufacturer. NHTSA has the final word on what repairs should be done.

Can dealers refuse to fix recalls?

Brand new Porsche brake rotor
Source: Clemson / Flickr

NHTSA orders dealers to issue a safety recall only when the manufacturer’s fault is proved. 

While dealers are obligated to take care of these problems free of charge, some of them may still charge you if your car is more than 15 years old or has suffered from a flood. However,  there’s always a chance that a repair shop will try to scam you. If you have any suspicions, contact your vehicle’s manufacturer or the NHTSA. 

Some recalls are vital

While most recalls are all about vulnerable materials and software problems, some manufacturers have faced more serious issues over the years.

In 2016, the Volkswagen emissions scandal has shaken the automotive world. A German motor vehicle manufacturer tweaked the diesel engine software to achieve 40 times lower emissions during testing. When the truth was revealed, Volkswagen was forced to recall 11 million vehicles and cover an eye-watering expense of €15.7 billion.

Back in the 2000s, Ford had to recall almost 15 million cars, trucks, and SUVs due to faulty cruise control switches that tended to prematurely wear out and short-circuit to the point of causing fires.

Another well-known incident happened in the ’90s. A rubber tread on some Firestone tires was prone to separate from the underlying steel belt at high speed and in hot climates. This led to unexpected tire explosions and rollovers of Ford SUVs. Now, manufacturers  use the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) to avoid under-inflation events.

Be aware when buying a used car

Hundreds of cars in a parking lot
Source: Dean Hochman / Flickr

If a manufacturer has issued a recall, your car may face serious safety risks. It’s best not to wait and take your vehicle for repairs after getting a notice. Repair shops may refuse to fix your car for free if a long time has passed since the recall.  You’re also risking to invalidate the car’s insurance, so don’t try your luck.

You shouldn’t overlook recalls when buying a used car. See if it has any open recalls, and if it does – skip this deal or make sure you’ll still get free repairs. An open recall means that nobody took the car for repairs after it was issued and it still has safety-related defects, which you’ll have to take care of yourself.

Manufacturers typically issue recalls after receiving multiple reports on the same safety-related defect. It’s very likely that a car with an “open recall” hanging next to its name had accidents in the past. Try to find out the vehicle identification number (VIN) and check the vehicle’s history to learn about past events and their severity.

You can learn about your vehicle’s recalls online

Brand new Seat cars next to the dealership
Source: JCT 600 / Flickr

If a car had recalls in the past and no one took it to the dealer, you may still get the problem sorted out free of charge. Sometimes, vehicle owners may not even know that their car can accidentally catch fire or lose a wheel. 

Manufacturers send recall notices only once – to the current owner. If you have bought a car from someone who didn’t take care of a recall, you may not suspect anything.

Just search  your car’s make, model, and year, followed by the word “recalls” online. Some websites only require a vehicle identification number (VIN) to reveal this data. It’s hard to provide a single website for checking this information, as they differ by location. If you find an open recall for your vehicle, contact your local dealer and you may get the problem sorted out without spending a penny.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What is an open recall on a car?

Car manufacturers must issue recalls on cars when a safety issue is detected because of their fault. A recall  stays open until the owner brings the vehicle for repairs.

Are recall repairs free?

Usually, car owners don’t have to pay anything for recall repairs. However, some exceptions are applied to  cars that are  over 15 years old or have suffered a flood.


Article by

Evaldas Zabitis

Evaldas has been writing since middle school and has had a passion for cars for as long as he can remember. Right after getting his driver’s license, he spent all of his savings on shoddy cars so he could spend time fixing, driving, and selling them. Evaldas is always interested in automotive technical innovations and is an active participant in automotive community discussions.