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What's Behind All the Car Recalls

Jessica L. Anderson

One bad part can affect a number of models in many countries, totaling hundreds of thousands of cars.

If you think you’ve heard more news about recalls lately, you’re right. General Motors alone has recalled more than 13 million vehicles since January—including a highly publicized recall for faulty ignition switches that prevented airbags from deploying in a handful of models and led to 13 deaths. GM agreed to pay a $35 million civil penalty (the most possible) after a government investigation found that the automaker knew about the problem in 2009 and failed to report it. In March, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.2 billion penalty to settle a criminal probe by the Justice Department for failing to report defects that led to the unintended acceleration recalls of 2009 and 2010.

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Such high-profile cases obscure the fact that nearly every major automaker has issued recalls. The tally for all automakers was more than 21 million in the first five months of this year. The numbers sound scary, but not all recalls are safety-related. Automakers may find that the seat stitching on a run of vehicles comes undone or that paint starts to peel. Even a typo in the owner’s manual—giving the wrong tire inflation, say—can prompt a recall.

One explanation for the surge in recalls is that manufacturers increasingly use a single platform to build multiple models. Sharing platforms means sharing parts, so one bad part can affect a number of models in many countries, totaling hundreds of thousands of cars.

The government’s more proactive safety stance in recent years may be increasing the number of recalls as well. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) instituted an early warning system that requires automakers to notify NHTSA about consumer complaints more quickly than in the past—which has paved the way for faster recalls.


John O’Dell, senior editor at auto in­formation site, says automakers have been stepping up to the plate. “Companies have come to learn that a recall can actually bolster their image with the consumer,” he says.

How recalls work. Recalls usually stem from consumer complaints—either to dealers or to NHTSA. Once an issue arises, manufacturers investigate. If the issue is safety-related but didn’t originate with NHTSA, carmakers are legally required to involve NHTSA.

Either party can order a recall. For ex­ample, last summer NHTSA prompted Chrysler to recall Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty models after an investigation discovered that the placement of fuel tanks increased the risk of fire. And this spring, Toyota, acting on its own, ordered two separate recalls affecting six million vehicles.

After a recall is ordered, a manufacturer must fix the problem on every vehicle affected. Working with companies that track vehicle ownership, the automaker mails multiple notices to current owners stating the problem, the risk (how it may affect your vehicle) and the remedy. Repairs are free at the dealer, paid for by the manufacturer.

Some dealers have been sending out mailings that look like recall notices but are really an effort to lure customers into dealerships. If the notice fails to explain the details of the recall, that’s a red flag. Recall notices from automakers now have to bear a standard red label that says Important Safety Recall Information, Issued in Accordance With Federal Law.

If you’re unsure whether recall work has been completed on your car, or you are buying a used car, go to and search by vehicle identification number. One-third of consumers don’t have recall work completed. Starting in August, NHTSA is requiring all automakers to have online search tools to tell consumers which recalls affect their vehicle and the fixes that have been completed.

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