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Auto Recalls: The Basics

The need to remove unsafe vehicles from our roads—primarily through auto recalls—is one way to ensure the safety of our highways. Traffic crashes are the number one killer of Americans under age 34. A key method for improving highway safety is through auto recalls and the recall of defective vehicle equipment.

Since 1966, more than 299 million cars, trucks, buses, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, and mopeds, as well as 43 million tires and 84 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment, including child seats, have been recalled to correct safety defects.

See the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) automobile recall portal for updates on vehicle and vehicle-related recalls. This article provides a brief overview of auto recalls in the United States.

When is an Auto Recall Necessary?

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards set minimum performance requirements for those parts of the vehicle that most affect its safe operation (brakes, tires, lighting) or that protect drivers and passengers from death or serious injury in the event of a crash (airbags, safety belts, child restraints, energy-absorbing steering columns, motorcycle helmets) and are applicable to all vehicles and equipment manufactured or imported for sale in the United States (including the territories) certified for use on public roads and highways.

A recall becomes necessary:

  1. When a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment (including tires) does not comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.
  2. When there is a safety-related defect in the vehicle or equipment.

Safety-Related Defects

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (1966) gives the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety-related defects or that do not meet safety standards. Generally, a safety-related defect is a problem that exists in a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment that:

  1. Poses a risk to motor vehicle safety, and
  2. May exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacture.

Examples of safety defects include:

  • Steering components that break suddenly cause partial or complete loss of vehicle control
  • Accelerator controls that may break or stick
  • Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control
  • Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate or malfunction
  • Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use
  • Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting
  • Car ramps or jacks collapse causing injury to someone working on a vehicle
  • Airbags that deploy under conditions for which they are not designed to deploy

How Will I Be Notified if an Auto Recall Is Ordered or Initiated?

Many auto recalls are initiated voluntarily by vehicle/equipment manufacturers, while others are either influenced by NHTSA investigations or complaints by vehicle owners.

Within a reasonable time after the determination of a safety defect or noncompliance, manufacturers must notify, by first-class mail, all registered owners and purchasers of the affected vehicles of the existence of the problem and give an evaluation of its risk to motor vehicle safety. The manufacturer must explain to consumers the potential safety hazards presented by the problem.

How Can a Recalled Vehicle be Remedied?

Once a defect determination is made, the law gives the manufacturer three options for correcting the defect: repair, replacement, or refund. The manufacturer may choose to repair the vehicle; replace the vehicle with an identical or similar vehicle; or refund the purchase price in full, minus a reasonable allowance for depreciation. In the case of equipment, including tires and child safety seats, the manufacturer can either repair or replace them. If you're considering pursuing a car defect claim it's in your best interests to contact a product liability attorney.

Get a Legal Case Assessment

If you think you have a legal claim to pursue you should discuss your case with an experienced attorney. Do so without delay as there are time limits on when you may file a personal injury lawsuit. Want some help before committing to hiring a lawyer?

You can even have a law firm evaluate the merits of your case before agreeing to representation.

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Contact a qualified product liability attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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