Consumer Reports Answers Your Most Important Car Recall Questions

For many vehicle owners, the word “recall” may induce anxiety, but it doesn’t mean an eventual mechanical breakdown. Car recalls are an extension of the manufacturer’s commitment to consumer safety, even outside the warranty period.

More than likely, at least a few thousand vehicles will be recalled when problems emerge. However, that number can sometimes expand to tens of millions. Regardless of the situation, knowing what to do before a recall happens is essential.

Why are cars recalled?

Recalls are typically pursued by manufacturers. Issues may arise from something as small as the paint finish or as large as exploding airbags. Automakers face fines from the government if they fail to disclose defects, especially if they pose a risk to vehicle safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, supervises all recalls. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be involved if a recall concerns emissions. For example, in 2018, the EPA worked with diesel manufacturer Cummins to replace faulty control systems related to excess nitrogen oxide.

How do I look up recalls for my car?

A motor vehicle recall notice sent by mail and its envelope for a U.K. car safety recall
A car recall notice sent by mail | Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Consumer Reports (CR) explains that companies must send official recall notices via first-class mail, irrespective of the type of recall. Each statement will be detailed with “Safety Recall Notice” and have federal logos printed on the label. They will describe potential safety hazards and explain how owners can get the problem corrected. Yet, mailed notices aren’t received until days or weeks after a recall is initiated and announced online. Moreover, a vehicle’s second or third owners may not receive them at all.

To mitigate the time spent driving a recalled vehicle, it’s easiest to go to the NHTSA website. This is especially true when recalls involve a select group of cars, not an entire model or lineup. To find out if a vehicle has an active recall, the one thing owners need is their vehicle identification number (VIN). This 17-digit combination of letters and numbers is found on the bottom outside of the windshield or the vehicle registration.

Are recall repairs free?

Not every recall is free, but most are for cars up to 10 years old. While issues with stereos may be at the owner’s expense, things like faulty cruise control switches won’t be.

If dealerships refuse to fix a recall, Consumer Reports’ manager of safety policy William Wallace encourages owners to contact the manufacturer. “Every safety defect puts people at risk, and recalls should be taken seriously,” he asserted.

Should you stop driving your car because it was recalled?

It will depend upon what is recalled to determine if the vehicle is a motor safety hazard. The Safety Recall Notice received by mail or the NHTSA website will specify if the car is safe to drive or needs to be kept outside. For instance, faulty electrical components may cause fires and should be kept away from trees and structures. Last year, the NHTSA recalled certain 2017 Kia Sportage SUVs for a short-circuiting issue leading to engine fires.

Automakers may even issue recalled vehicles a “Do Not Drive” warning. This could entail anything from failing brakes, transmission lock up, or diesel engine runaway. In 2021, Subaru issued a “Do Not Drive” notice and recall on select 2021 model year Impreza sedans and hatchbacks. The NHTSA reported that failing welds on the front driver’s side lower control arm could result in a sudden loss of control.

What should owners do if their vehicle is recalled?

Owners receiving a Safety Recall Notice or hearing a news report about a recall should take the situation seriously. Here are three easy steps in dealing with a recall:

  1. Confirm the recall applies to your vehicle. Using the vehicle or owner registration VIN, visit the NHTSA website for more information.
  2. Determine if the recall is free or not, depending on the age of the vehicle. Even if the repair falls outside the timeframe, don’t ignore safety-related issues.
  3. Contact your nearest dealership service department. Recall repairs must be performed at the dealership for inspection, quality control, and documentation.

RELATED: Mercedes Recalls GLE, GLS, for Window Trim Issues