Auto Recalls: The FAQs

Most experienced American drivers have probably received at least one recall notice for a car they owned.

Typically this notification consists of a letter from the vehicle’s manufacturer (Ford, GM, Toyota etc.) telling owners about a safety defect on their car and offering a free repair at a dealership. Sometimes manufacturers are proactive and notify owners of a problem before an official recall is issued.

Auto Recalls are Like Bail Bonds

Auto recalls tend to be somewhat like bail bonds. The process begins after there have been serious accusations of bad behavior.

  • A bail bondsman takes action to get a suspect out of jail, buying the accused temporary freedom and time to fight the charge.
  • An auto recall is often not issued until the safety defect has been responsible for deaths and serious injuries (the crime).
  • Fixing the defect can be very expensive (like the high bail a court can require), but it’s better to pay it than risking continuing and overwhelming legal costs and penalties (or remaining in jail).

Who Regulates Auto Recalls?

Auto recalls won’t prevent those deaths or injuries caused by drunk or distracted drivers, but they are intended to prevent as many accidents as possible caused by unsafe vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority to require vehicle manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety defects or that don’t meet required safety standard. Every vehicle must meet minimum performance requirements (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) for tires, lights, brakes, and other parts of the vehicle having the most effect on safety. Vehicles must also conform to minimum standards for seat belts, airbags, and other parts of the vehicle specifically designed to protect drivers and passengers in an accident.

Which Cars Have the Best and Worst Recall Rates?

Auto recalls are far more common than most people would expect. Out of every 1,000 similar cars manufactured, how many recalls would you expect? Five? Ten? Two hundred? The real number of recalls is shocking. Just take a look. How would your car stack up?

The top five manufacturers with the fewest recalls between 1985-2016 include:

  • Porsche: 531 – just over half of all cars had one recall notice
  • Mercedes-Benz: 624
  • Kia: 788
  • Tesla: 936
  • Mazda: 955 – almost every Mazda required a recall

The manufacturers above had the best records. Remember that the number of recalls is per 1,000 vehicles, so any number over 1,000 means that typical cars produced by that manufacturer had more than one safety recall notice.

The five manufacturers with the worst recall histories include:

  • BMW: 1,196 – on average, each BMW had one or more recall notices
  • Hyundai: 1,266
  • Honda: 1,307
  • Chrysler (FCA): 1,422
  • Volkswagen Group: 1,805 – this doesn’t include recalls issued because of the diesel emissions scandal

Auto recalls are far more common than most people would expect.

Can a Car Dealer Sell a Car With an Unrepaired Safety Recall?

The answer is “Yes.” Consumer advocates sued the FTC for decisions in several cases that allowed car dealers to place ads that most people would consider deceptive. The consumer lawsuit asked a court to review and overturn consent agreements between the FTC, manufacturers, and dealers. The FTC had decided that certain dealers would be allowed to continue advertising vehicles with unrepaired or open recalls as safe. An ad saying that a dealer’s used cars were “certified” or “inspected” does not necessarily mean that any safety defect has been repaired.

Protect Yourself

There are several things you can do to protect yourself when buying a used vehicle.

  • Visit to see if there are any recall notices on that car and ask for proof the repair was completed.
  • Use CarFax to check the car’s accident record.
  • Have your mechanic check the vehicle.

Don’t be surprised to someday receive a recall notice on your car, but be sure to take the car in to be repaired. Many people do not, putting themselves and others at risk. Vehicle recalls are serious business.
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