The truth about car recalls

After a record year of problem cars, consumers are asking, What does that mean for me?

Published: February 24, 2015 12:45 PM
Stephanie Erdman, injured by a defective Takata air bag, spoke before a Senate hearing.
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

 If you’re still reeling from the avalanche of car recalls last year—an all-time record—and wondering what it all means, you’re not alone. In 2014 about 62 million U.S. vehicles were recalled. That’s the equivalent of about four years’ worth of cars sold here, or about one out of every four cars on the road today.

Several recalls made huge headlines, including those for defective ignition switches in General Motors cars that have been linked to at least 50 deaths, and faulty Takata air bags, installed in Hondas and other brands, said to be responsible for at least five deaths and 64 injuries.

So what’s going on? Have carmakers been asleep at the drawing board or on the assembly line? And will the recalls result in better practices and safer cars?

The answer to both questions is yes. Several big manufacturers have certainly made defective vehicles in the past and in some cases tried to cover it up. But the resulting publicity has turned a harsh spotlight on the problem and created an expectation of safer cars. Take a public that’s ready to complain—and often willing to sue—plus a more aggressive federal government and you end up with record-breaking recalls.

There could be even more recalls in 2015. The new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Mark Rosekind, told Consumer Reports, “If the system is working better to pick up [those defects] and we’re catching them sooner and more easily, we might actually see an increase.”

Rosekind is referring to the fact that in the past few years, federal regulators have made it a priority to root out design defects. Indeed, some of the largest recalls, including those involving Takata’s air bags and 1.5 million older Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs for fuel-tank punctures, were demanded by NHTSA.

Find out whether your car has been recalled.

Surprise: Cars are actually safer

Most recalls, though, are initiated by the automakers themselves, who are, frankly, running scared. In 2013 the government began requiring them to be more diligent in alerting the feds to safety issues. Manufacturers who didn’t comply got hit with $126 million in fines by NHTSA last year, a record.

The timing of all of those recalls comes as a new wave of auto-safety features is showing up on cars. As of 2013, traffic deaths had dropped almost 25 percent in 10 years. The 21,132 occupants killed in passenger vehicles that year was the lowest on record, according to government data.

“Cars are better and safer than ever, as shown in our tests,” says Jake Fisher, director of the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. “But it didn’t happen overnight. Consumers, regulators, and the auto industry itself have collectively raised expectations. Widely published crash-test results have also done wonders to drive improvements. Today’s car buyers prioritize safety, putting additional, ongoing pressure on automakers to provide safe vehicles and respond quickly to problems.”

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. “While cars are safer, the system for identifying and addressing safety defects still needs work,” says Ellen Bloom, director of federal policy for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Sometimes automakers have been slow to report problems, and regulators lack the resources they need to hold industry accountable.”

The threat of consumer and government lawsuits could provide powerful incentives for even tighter quality control. Although NHTSA’s ability to penalize automakers financially is capped at $35 million per violation, the justice system has fewer restrictions. Last year Toyota shelled out $1.2 billion to settle criminal fraud charges brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ). It was punishment for Toyota’s foot-dragging and deceptive public statements in response to allegations that its vehicles experienced unintended acceleration. Toyota had already agreed in 2013 to a $1.6 billion class-action settlement with millions of owners whose vehicles had lost value because of related recalls.

The DOJ is reportedly looking into a similar case against General Motors for withholding information from consumers regarding flimsy ignition key switches in small cars, mostly the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion from the mid-2000s. And plaintiffs’ attorneys see the potential for a $10 billion case against GM.

GM finally acknowledged the defect last year, kicking off a cascade of ever-expanding recalls to address those and other cars’ defects. By the end of 2014, GM had issued 84 recalls for almost 27 million vehicles—more vehicles than the entire industry has recalled in most years.

How to protect yourself

Consumers need to do their part by participating fully in recalls. If you get a notice, take it seriously. Too many car owners don’t respond to them, so the free safety fix is never done. A 2012 NHTSA-­sponsored study found that 21 to 25 percent of the problems covered by recall notices between 2006 and 2010 remained unrepaired. Carfax, which tracks used-car vehicle histories, calculated that more than 36 million cars now on the road have uncompleted recall work.

In some cases, owners don’t know there’s a problem because they bought their car used and the previous owner didn’t get the work done. Other times, automakers lose track of who owns the car because it has been sold and resold a few times.

But a lot of people simply disregard the recall letter, especially if their car doesn’t show signs of the problem described. That’s a mistake, just like ignoring a fire alarm in your building because you can’t smell smoke.

“You’ve got to pay attention to all [recalls],” Rosekind says. “A recall means it’s a safety issue. But we’re looking at increasing our communications to help people understand them more clearly. We want them to be safe, but they’ve got to take action as well.”

It’s easy to find out whether your car has an unresolved recall repair. With your vehicle identification number (VIN) in hand, go to your automaker’s website or to NHTSA’s site, at safercar.gov; punch in the number; and see whether recall work is pending. (You can find the 17-digit VIN on the car, its registration paperwork, or your insurance card.) Or call any franchised dealer for your brand. More information is at ConsumerReports.org/carrecalls.

Second, if you notice that something seems wrong with your vehicle, say something. Get involved. If your car develops a problem that you think could put you or someone else in danger, such as a fuel leak or a serious steering or braking defect that’s not related to wear and tear, report it to the automaker’s customer-service department and NHTSA’s safety hotline (at safercar.gov). Automakers and the government depend on consumer complaints to find out about safety concerns and do something about them. If no one reports a problem, it’s as if it never existed.

Of course, you should get your car fixed if it seems unsafe to drive. If the repair is later covered by a recall, you’ll probably be reimbursed for the expense that the dealer charged for the repair.

Battling ‘recall fatigue’

The ignition switch in GM some cars was linked to many deadly accidents before a recall.
Photo: Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters

One reason consumers don’t respond to recall notices promptly could be that there are so many, an unintended consequence of stepped-up enforcement and automakers’ increased accountability. It’s also a function of their new willingness to address problems in older vehicles, a situation that should calm down in time.

In the interim, however, more recalls means more chances for consumers to ignore them, which is happening with rising frequency.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get customers to come in to get the recalls done,” said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda. “There is definitely recall fatigue.”

Mendel suggests that NHTSA should create different categories of recalls, where truly dangerous defects would be distinguished from problems that could wait until a car owner’s next scheduled service. An alternative is the system used in Japan, where a vehicle’s registration can’t be renewed unless the owner can prove that all recall work was done.

Consumer Reports’ auto experts consider those solutions to be compelling, but a key objective remains providing NHTSA with adequate funding to properly protect America’s driving public.

Check on recalls for your car with our search tool. And for more about car safety, go to ConsumerReports.org/carsafety.

5 key questions about recalls

1. How do I find out whether my car has been recalled? Go to your vehicle manufacturer’s website or to safercar.gov, and plug in your vehicle identification number (VIN).

2. How do I find out whether the used car I’m buying was recalled and the problem was fixed? Same as above.

3. Should I worry about my car’s air bags? Any recall should be taken seriously. To get some perspective and learn about the greatest dangers, read “Everything You Need to Know About the Takata Air-Bag Recall.”

4. How do I know whether my recalled car is safe to drive? If your car is unsafe, the recall notice from NHTSA or the manufacturer will say so in clear language.

5. How do I file a complaint? Go to SaferCar.gov.

A talk with Mr. Recall

Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator
Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says that complaints are up—and that’s a good thing. America’s highway-safety czar recently spoke with Consumer Reports.

CR: How could your agency address vehicle defects and recalls better?

Rosekind: We need three things: people with the right skills, the right tools—meaning technology—and the authority. At the moment, our authority to levy penalties is capped at $35 million. We’re trying to make that $300 million. Prior to coming here, I identified how underresourced the agency is. Now that I’m here, I can see it’s much worse than I realized.

Last year, consumers brought us 77,000 safety complaints, way up from the usual 45,000, and we only have seven to nine people to look through all those. That’s an overwhelming amount of data. And we only have about 16 investigators to do defect investigations. So we need more people—but also new technology—to collect and filter the data for different kinds of trend analysis.

CR: Should consumers see recalls as a good thing?

Rosekind: The recall is critical because if you don’t get that defect fixed, you still have the risk. Recalls are a sign of addressing safety issues, which makes driving safer for all of us.

CR: Are automakers responding?

Rosekind: NHTSA is helping to push auto companies toward proactive safety. We’re trying to tighten up the current system and get the industry to realize it’s going to be much more efficient, economical, and—bottom line—safer to catch problems on the front end. We want to make sure that lessons learned—defects, recalls, anything—all get channeled into raising the bar on safety for everyone.

Autos Spotlight

Visit our Autos Spotlight special section to find all of our new and updated Annual Auto Issue articles, plus see the latest Best & worst new carsBest & worst used carsUsed car reliability, and New car Ratings & road tests.

From 2015: Top Picks, Car Brand Report CardDetroit Wakes Up, and Tips for Deciding If You Need a New Car.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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