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Survey: Consumer confusion over car recalls

Consumer Reports News: May 21, 2010 10:12 AM

Auto recalls have been prevalent in news headlines this past year, with Toyota alone recalling millions of vehicles due to safety concerns. This, and the resultant confusion as to which recalls affect which vehicles, has significantly influenced Toyota's brand perception and brand loyalty. (See our past reports on car recalls.)

New survey results, however, show that relatively few consumers know how common automotive recalls are. Overall, almost half—44 percent--of survey respondents thought that fewer than 10 auto recalls took place over the past 12 months; 17 percent said there had been 10 to 19 recalls, according to a recent survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. In fact, over the past three years, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defect and compliance investigations have resulted in 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles. That's an average of about 175 per year, which have been issued by virtually every major automaker.

These findings are based on a random telephone survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. In April, 1,704 interviews were completed among adults whose household owns at least one vehicle.

Total recall: How consumers prefer to receive notification
The survey results show there are strong preferences about how consumers prefer to find out about their recalls. With the Toyota recalls, there had been a lot of media buzz for weeks before many consumers received notification letters from the manufacturer. Despite this delay, 71 percent of drivers favor being notified by postal mail. The next most-popular choice is a telephone call (11 percent), followed by email (8 percent), and TV or radio broadcast (5 percent). Drivers under age 44 are more interested in phone (15 percent), though it is clear that a formal document via mail is most preferred by this group as well.

When asked how they would seek information on whether their car was involved in a recall, the unaided responses were focused on the official sources: car dealer (37 percent), car manufacturer (16 percent), and government website (14 percent). All three are good outlets for recall information. In particular, a dealership can look up your vehicle identification number and readily determine if there is an applicable recall. While a natural choice, automaker websites vary in ease of use, and they often require registration to access specific owner areas where such information is available.

Looking further down the list, TV/cable news (9 percent), Consumer Reports (6 percent), and newspapers (5 percent) were other notable potential sources. Television and newspapers, however, are hit-or-miss by their nature. If you don't tune in the minute your preferred news show runs an applicable report, or you don't catch a newspaper when it prints the recall list featuring your vehicle, then you would miss this important information.

Each month, Consumer Reports magazine presents a list of notable recalls, but it doesn't include all recalls. Online, we blog about recalls regularly. And we are looking into other methods of providing recall information more quickly and effectively to help us  achieve our goal of strengthening the U.S. safety net and better communicating safety information to  readers. ( Learn more.)

Consumers drive recalls
It is important for consumers to understand that they too have a critical role to play in highlighting vehicle problems that can lead to  recalls. By reporting safety-related problems to NHTSA via, consumers provide essential information into a database that can be analyzed for emerging trends, potentially triggering an investigation and subsequent recall.

We also would like to know about your safety concerns. We sometimes use consumer complaints to pressure government agencies to take appropriate action. You can file a complaint with us by clicking here.

By their nature, recalls are a means to correct an identified safety risk. While some recalls can involve large numbers of vehicles, there are usually relatively few cars that actually experience the specific  problem that led to the recall. Still, we encourage car-owners to have recall work performed at their earliest convenience to avoid potential problems.

According to NHTSA, the average consumer response rate to vehicle recalls is 74.1 percent. We would like to see this number increase, and it can with more vigilance from owners' and improvements in the recall process.

Jeff Bartlett with the Consumer Reports National Research Center

Also read:
Survey: Ford up, Toyota down in perceived safety, quality
Survey: Honda perceived to be tops in customer, quality commitment
Survey: Toyota down, Ford and Honda up in brand loyalty
Survey: Toyota crisis taking its toll on brand loyalty?
Consumer Reports 2010 Car Brand Perception Survey

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