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How Automotive Recalls Work


How does the NHTSA conduct an investigation?
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., displays a Firestone Wilderness AT model tire during a House Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on June 19, 2001, looking into Ford Motor Company's recall of Firestone tires.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., displays a Firestone Wilderness AT model tire during a House Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on June 19, 2001, looking into Ford Motor Company's recall of Firestone tires.
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

If enough consumers contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and file a report about the same problem with the same type of vehicle, the NHTSA may decide to open an investigation. And if it does, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is the agency in charge of performing the automotive recall investigation.

But how do the NHTSA and the ODI go about conducting a full investigation? The ODI's investigative process can be broken down into four parts:

  • Screening: A review of all consumer complaints to determine if an investigation is warranted
  • Petition Analysis: An examination of the petitions for defect investigations or reviews of safety-related recalls
  • Investigations: Two-phase -- Preliminary Evaluation (PE) and Engineering Analysis (EA) investigations into suspected safety defects
  • Recall Management: Monitoring the overall effectiveness of safety recalls

[source: ODI]

If the NHTSA decides that a safety defect is present, a public meeting is held in which members of the public and the manufacturer can discuss the issue. The manufacturer may dispute the claim and even present new information to the NHTSA Administrator in charge of making the final decision. In the end, it's all up to the NHTSA's Administrator to determine whether to issue a safety defect recall. The manufacturer can challenge the NHTSA's decision, but the issue then goes to a Federal District Court for the final ruling.

The issue doesn't always go to the courts, though. As mentioned earlier, some manufacturers decide to initiate the recall process based on their own investigations. For instance, the manufacturer may determine that a vehicle isn't compliant with a known federal safety standard, or it may discover and decide to correct a safety defect before any problems arise.

So while it can seem like recalls permeate the news headlines, in a way, they're proof that manufacturers are making an effort to keep you safe. And in the case of automotive recalls, it's an attempt to reduce your risk of injury and property damage -- and a way to keep roadways as safe as possible, too.

Once the recall is underway, the manufacturer, the media, the NHTSA and others spread the word about it. Exactly what you need to do if your car is on the recall list depends on the nature of the defect -- and the nature of the recall. Sometimes, a manufacturer will ask you to schedule an appointment at your dealership as you would for other service, or you may need to leave your vehicle overnight. In more extreme cases, the manufacturer may even arrange for your car to be towed or carried from your home to the dealership. Either way, the best way to figure out what you need to do is to contact your vehicle's manufacturer, either by getting in touch with the dealership or by calling a number set up specifically for handling recall questions.

For more information about automotive recalls and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


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