How Automotive Recalls Work

Image Gallery: Car Safety Dan Daigle, service manager at Lee Toyota in Topsham, Maine, holds a shim that will be used to repair springs in the gas pedal systems of recalled Toyota automobiles. See more car safety pictures.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Laptop batteries that catch fire. Pet foods that make animals sick. Children's toys covered in lead paint. It's hard to pick up a newspaper, watch TV or browse the headlines online without stumbling onto a report of a recall. In the past few years, there have been recalls for beef, chicken, candy bars, spinach, peanut butter, medicines, power tools and baby cribs. Basically, anything you can buy can also be recalled -- including automobiles.

An automotive recall is a way for a manufacturer to tell you that there could be something about your car or truck that presents a risk of injury or property damage. And if you want to drill down to the very core of the issue, automotive recalls are intended to fix known problems with vehicles in an effort to keep roadways safer. Traffic crashes are the number-one killer of Americans under the age of 34, and a staggering 42,000 deaths are recorded each year on U.S. highways [source: ODI]. Some of those lives could be saved by repairing unsafe vehicles or removing them from the roads. But who has the authority to do something like that?


The answer isn't who, but rather what. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sets the national safety standards and can influence -- or in some cases order -- an auto manufacturer to repair safety-related defects at no cost to the consumer [source: ODI]. Even if the fix is something as minor as a missing washer or a faulty electrical connection, the manufacturer stands to lose millions of dollars in the process -- it all depends on the number of cars and trucks affected by the recall, the cost of the replacement parts and the time it takes a technician to make the repair. So, as you can imagine, the automotive industry sometimes resists the idea of undergoing a full-scale recall.

With that in mind, how does an automotive recall begin? And, other than the NHTSA, is there anyone else involved?


Starting U.S. Automotive Recalls: Contacting the NHTSA

A 2000 Toyota 4Runner lifts its passenger-side wheels while taking part in a dynamic rollover test conducted by the NHTSA at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio.
AP Photo/Will Shilling

Some auto manufacturers make the first move when discovering potential faults or hazards in their cars or trucks, willingly starting the recall process on their own. Other companies need a little push from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), or even the courts, to start the recall process. The NHTSA recall process often starts when people discover flaws in vehicles they own or work on. If you find a potential hazard in your car or truck, you can get in touch with the NHTSA and report your safety concerns.

There are three methods you can use to contact the NHTSA if you suspect a safety-related defect in your vehicle. You can take any (or all) of the following actions:


  • Call the U.S. Department of Transportation's Vehicle Safety Hotline: (888) 327-4236 or (800) 424-9153, toll free from anywhere in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
  • Report the issue online at the NHTSA's vehicle safety Web site:
  • Send a letter via U.S. Mail: U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office of Defects Investigation (NVS-210) 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE Washington, DC 20590

[source: ODI]

If you file a complaint, there's a chance you may be contacted by an investigator from the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI). The ODI, an office within the NHTSA, conducts defect investigations to support the NHTSA's efforts. But that's not all it does. ODI investigators keep a close watch on manufacturers' recall operations, too.

If enough consumers file a report about the same issue with the same make, model and year of vehicle, the NHTSA may decide to open an investigation. We'll look at what happens during the investigation next.


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.
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.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Arcega, Mil. "Toyota Apologizes for Massive Auto Recall." Feb. 8, 2010. (Feb. 10, 2010)
  • Office of Defects Investigation. "Motor Vehicle Defects and Safety Recalls: What Every Vehicle Owner Should Know." U.S. Department of Transportation. (Feb. 10, 2010)
  • Office of Defects Investigation. "Defects and Recalls: Search for Recalls." U.S. Department of Transportation. (Feb. 10, 2010)
  • Shepardson, David. "Auto recall rules may be tightened by NHTSA." The Detroit News. Feb. 2, 2010. (Feb. 10, 2010)