What is a car recall?

Evaldas Zabitis

Evaldas Zabitis

New car buyers expect that everything in their vehicle will work as it is 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?

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Who makes car recalls?

While the process of initiating car recalls is similar across regions, it can still vary depending on the country and its regulations.

For example, in the US, car recalls are typically initiated by vehicle manufacturers or by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), while in Europe, besides a car manufacturer, a recall may also be made by:

  • A regulatory authority, such as the European Commission, if it identifies safety-related defects through its regulatory and monitoring mechanisms.
  • National authorities in member states that work in collaboration with regulatory authorities to ensure that recalls are carried out effectively and car owners are informed.
  • Consumers can influence the recall process, reporting potential risks to regulatory agencies and manufacturers. However, the decision whether to make a recall is made only after thorough investigations conducted by mentioned parties.

If a vehicle is part of a recall, the manufacturer is obliged to fix the defect free of charge.

When do recalls expire?

In general, car recalls do not have an expiration date and can be transferred from one owner to another. The issued recall remains in effect until all affected vehicles have been repaired or replaced (if the problem cannot be fixed), regardless of how much time has passed.

There’s an exception for tires, though – tire-related recalls are only valid for sixty days after the date of issue.

Brand new Porsche brake rotor
Source: Clemson / Flickr

Can dealers refuse to fix recalls?

Safety recalls are only issued when the manufacturer’s fault is proved. Therefore, authorized dealerships are legally obliged to address recalls and do the necessary repairs at no cost to the vehicle owner.

Under certain circumstances, however, some of them may still try to charge you or refuse to fix a recall. For instance, this can happen if your car is more than 15 years old or has suffered from a flood. But every situation is different and you should still contact your vehicle’s manufactured or regulatory authorities if you believe that the dealership is wrongfully refusing to address a recall.

It’s important to remember that car recalls are made to ensure safety of everyone on the road, and they should not be taken lightly.

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 of recalls when buying a used car

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

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.

Records in a vehicle report

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You can learn about your vehicle's recalls online

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. Sometimes, vehicle owners may not even know that their car can accidentally catch fire or lose a wheel.

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

To learn about potential recalls online, search your car’s make, model, and year, followed by the word “recalls.” 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

Evaldas Zabitis

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.