Most Americans believe if a vehicle has been recalled due to a safety defect that could cause imminent danger, the owner should be legally required to bring the car to a dealership to get it fixed. That’s according to a new Consumer Reports survey. 

Currently, U.S. law requires auto manufacturers to alert owners when a vehicle has a recall, so that owners can take their car to a dealership, where the defect will be fixed for free. However, there are no laws requiring the owners to actually follow through and have the defect repaired. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are tens of millions of vehicles on the road that are subject to a recall, but have not been repaired.

Consumer Reports' nationwide survey of 1,007 randomly sampled American adults asked respondents if they would support a legal mandate requiring vehicle owners to have recalls performed before they could re-register or sell their vehicle. In our poll, we divided recalls into three separate types, based on safety and environmental risk.

Our results showed that 85 percent of respondents felt that recalls involving dangerous defects—ones that could cause failures of braking or steering systems, for instance—should require a mandatory fix.

Also, 70 percent of respondents believe that an emissions recall, such as the one expected from Volkswagen to fix its diesel cars, should be legally required.

In the case of a safety defect that has a low risk of causing bodily harm—for example, a glitch in the infotainment system that causes the navigation screen to go blank—51 percent support a law that compels the owner to have it fixed. 

Recalls Abound

Car recalls are at historical highs. In 1995, NHTSA reported 348 recalls affecting over 19 million cars. In 2015, those numbers jumped to 973 recalls affecting almost 88 million US cars—a big chunk of that number is from the high-profile Takata airbag recall.

Under federal law, the cost of recalls for cars 15 years old or less is covered by automakers. But despite the free repair of potentially dangerous problems, there are an estimated 46 million cars with unfixed recalls currently on the road, according to CarFax.

According to NHTSA and the Government Accountability Office, only 65 to 70 percent of vehicles subject to a recall are repaired within the 18-month period during which automakers provide recall completion data. 

For highly dangerous defects, owners have an obvious safety incentive to bring their vehicles in for a recall fix. But many recalls can seem less urgent. For our fleet of the 70-plus cars we purchase for testing every year, Consumer Reports receives 30 to 40 recall notices annually, says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports' shop supervisor and ASE certified mechanic. “Many lean heavily towards software updates for emissions controls,” he notes.

Even high-profile emissions fixes, such as the one expected from Volkswagen to fix its diesel cars, can leave owners with mixed feelings. Consumer Reports testing suggests that a fix to bring VW's TDIs into compliance may end up compromising those vehicles' fuel economy and performance. Several owners have expressed reluctance to bring their TDIs in for a fix, and early reports suggest that Volkswagen will have to compensate users in addition to offering a repair.

NHTSA has stated it will seek 100 percent remedy completion rates for recalls and has kick-started the effort by hosting a “Retooling Recalls” workshop and supporting a new law that rental car companies must fix recalled cars before handing the keys over to rental customers.

In October of this year, NHTSA will begin a pilot program in six states that aims to inform owners of any recalls when they attempt to register their vehicles.

NHTSA also supports a proposal, endorsed by Consumer Reports, that would specifically ban dealers from selling used cars with unrepaired safety defects.

However, NHTSA has no authority to force an individual consumer to repair a recalled vehicle. There is also no federal requirement for fixing recalled used cars before resale by an individual; the U.S. Department of Transportation currently doesn’t have the authority to mandate it.

Millennials Most Likely to Favor Mandatory Fixes

In our survey, younger respondents were the most supportive of mandatory fixes. Ninety percent of Millennials favor a law requiring recall repairs of vehicles with serious safety issues, while 81 percent of Baby Boomers and Generation X would support such a law.

Millennials are also more likely to back a requirement for emissions recall fixes. Seventy-seven percent believe that owners should have to make these repairs—while 68 percent and 65 percent of baby boomers and Gen Xers agree.

"Car owners should get known defects fixed—not just for their own sake, but for the safety and well-being of their passengers and their community," said William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports.

"While consumers are split on whether it should be legally required for them to get recall repairs done, these survey results indicate that they take recalls seriously," Wallace added. "We urge auto manufacturers and dealers to make it as convenient as possible for consumers to take their cars in for repairs, and to compensate them appropriately if a repair is time-consuming." 

If you are looking to buy a new or used car, either from a dealer or a private seller, consumers are encouraged to check the VIN or model of the car at www.safercar.gov to see if there are any existing recalls that may have not been completed.