The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in September 2021 ordered General Motors to recall nearly six million trucks and SUVs that have defective air bags made by Takata, a Japanese manufacturer that was at the center of one of the largest recalls in recent history.
The vehicles include model years between 2007 and 2014, including the Cadillac Escalade; Chevrolet 1500, 2500, and 3500; Chevy Suburban and Tahoe; GMC Sierra 1500, 2500, and 3500; and the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL.
The order comes after several high-profile recalls in recent years — like the Volkswagen fuel emission issue, Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem the Takata airbag recall — that affect drivers’ safety.
Consumers must be educated about recalls to ensure more safety on the roads and understand what actions they can take to get their vehicles fixed. Here’s what you should know:
How are recalls initiated?
Recalls are initiated when a vehicle or part of a vehicle doesn’t meet minimum Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and poses a safety risk for drivers, passengers and other motorists.
Recalls can involve safety-related defects such as faulty steering components that cause a driver to lose control of a vehicle, wiring system issues that become fire hazards or defective accelerator controls. Non-safety-related defects include faulty air conditioners, radios, or normal car battery issues.
Either a car manufacturer or NHTSA will issue a mandated recall of a car or car part, which can occur after NHTSA receives several reports about safety defects on a particular vehicle, launches an investigation and orders an automaker to issue a recall.
Car manufacturers also have departments dedicated to reviewing every customer complaint. Shah says that if complaints about a defect go above a certain threshold, an automaker will consider whether it is serious enough to warrant a recall — about 98% of recalls are voluntary.
How will I be notified?
Whether the recall is voluntary or mandated, automakers must notify their customers by first-class mail and repair the issue for free.
The notification typically includes details about the defect’s safety risk and provides instructions about how to repair the problem and how long the repair will take.
If you haven’t received a letter but think your vehicle is part of the recall, contact NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236 or 800-424-9393 or search for recalls using your VIN number on www.safercar.gov. It’s also a good idea to contact your car’s manufacturer for more information.
How do I get my car fixed?
After a recall is issued, an automaker is required to either repair the car or defective part for free, replace it, or issue a full refund for the car’s purchase price (minus depreciation).
A car dealer can search for open recalls by VIN and repair the issue even if you’ve purchased a used car or the car is no longer under warranty.
“It’s the obligation of the auto manufacturer to have it fixed, and of course, the obligation is that the car can be fixed whether you bought it new or used,” says George Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Richmond who has spent more than 40 years researching recalls. “You just have to take it to the authorized dealer of that brand and then the factory reimburses that dealer.”
What if I paid for the repairs before the recall?
If you’ve paid for repairs before a recall is issued, you may be entitled to reimbursement depending on the circumstances. Car manufacturers must reimburse car owners based on either the date NHTSA launches an engineering analysis (a key part of its investigation) or the year before the automaker notifies the agency of the safety defect, whichever date comes first.
Car owners who’ve already paid for a repair are eligible for a reimbursement up until 10 days after the manufacturer sends the final notices about the safety recall to customers.
An auto manufacturer must issue a free replacement for these car owners up until 30 days after it issues final notices about the recall. To be reimbursed, car owners must provide documentation of the pre-recall repair costs incurred.
Are there exceptions to getting free repairs done?
If your vehicle is more than 10 years old on the date the defect is discovered, you aren’t eligible for a free repair. Automakers determine the age of the vehicle based on when it was sold to the original owner, so if you’ve purchased a used car, this stipulation will affect you.
Still, car owners must get safety defects repaired, even if they have to pay for it themselves. Ignoring a safety recall could put you and other drivers in jeopardy.
What do I do if my dealer refuses to fix my car for free?
Fortunately, the law sides with car owners in these cases. Legal agreements between authorized dealers and automakers require the dealer to do a free repair when there’s a recall, even if you didn’t originally purchase your car at that location.
However, car owners need to understand that there’s often a gap between when an automaker or NHTSA determines a recall is necessary and when a car manufacturer informs consumers of a remedy.
During this time lag a dealer is not required to do a free repair, so it’s best for car owners to wait until they receive a notice to correct the repair. If the issue is urgent, a manufacturer may send a notice in the meantime about what actions car owners can take to reduce the likelihood the defect will happen. Seeking reimbursement for a pre-recall repair also is an option.
Do car recalls expire?
Recalls don’t expire, but your insurance company may deny your claim if you get into an accident involving a recalled part that hasn’t been fixed.
If you filed an insurance claim before the recall and have comprehensive coverage, your insurer should pay out the claim and the car manufacturer should reimburse them.
Why do some recalled parts never get fixed?
According to NHTSA, on average 25% of recalled cars never get fixed.
There are plenty of reasons why, according to several studies. Hoffer conducted research over a decade ago that indicated the car’s age and the severity of the recall affect whether the defect is repaired.
“The newer the vehicle, the more likely it is to be returned. This makes sense because it’s in the hands of the person who bought the car from the original dealer,” he says.
“The more severe the recall type (loss of steering control and fires, for example), the greater the response,” Hoffer adds.
The language automakers use to notify consumers about a recall may have an impact, too. A 2013 study by researchers at Stony Brook University found the language car manufacturers use conveys less of a sense of urgency and risk than the language NHTSA uses to describe recalls (including the word “death,” for example). This may impact whether car owners get their vehicles fixed.
“We find that notification letters, through alerting language used to describe the risk of not correcting the defect, play an important role in increasing the correction rates,” researchers Yong-Kyun Bae and Hugo Benitez-Silva said in the study.
But the onus can’t solely be on car manufacturers. Car owners must be more vigilant to keep themselves safe. And this begins with awareness. NHTSA recently launched a recall spotlight feature on its site to give car owners the latest information on recalls.
The agency also advises car owners to check for open recalls at least twice a year using its free VIN lookup tool. Subscribing to a free app like myCarFax, which sends recall alerts, also can keep you informed.
Experts say automakers can do several things to improve safety, too. Shah suggests focusing on more standard options that could reduce assembly line errors that lead to recalls. The Stony Brook researchers also suggest that regulating the language used in recall notices could ensure more car owners get their vehicles repaired.
Hoffer says adding service perks like a free oil change could incentivize more car owners to do repairs. Still, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“Some recalls are amazingly cheap to fix, and others are super expensive, but the bottom line is a recall is costly, so clearly there should be an incentive on the part of the manufacturer to minimize them.”
— Satta Sarmah-Hightower contributed to this story.