| Car Life
a mechanic looks under the hood of a vehicle while a coworker looks on

Cars are safer and more reliable than ever before. However, with more bells and whistles, their complexity can lead to safety recalls. In fact, more than 1,000 safety recalls affected roughly 35 million vehicles and other equipment in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, millions of these vehicles are never repaired, putting their owners and other drivers on the road at risk.

If you think your car may have been recalled, or at least part of it, here’s what you need to know. From the definition of a vehicle safety recall to what happens if your car is recalled to what to do if a dealer tries to charge you for a recall repair, we’ll give you the information you need to handle the situation from start to finish.

What is a recall on a car?

A vehicle safety recall is issued when a vehicle or a piece of its original equipment does not meet federal safety standards. Both auto manufacturers and the NHTSA have the authority to issue recalls. When a safety-related defect is discovered, the auto manufacturer is required to file a public report that describes:

  • The defect or non-compliance with federal safety standards
  • The vehicle/equipment affected
  • Any events leading up to the recall being discovered or determined
  • A description of and schedule for how the manufacturer is resolving the issue

These are the most common (from highest percentage to lowest percentage) causes for recalls, according to BankRate analysis of NHTSA data:

  • Equipment
  • Electrical system
  • Power train
  • Steering
  • Structure
  • Brakes/hydraulic
  • Air bags
  • Tires
  • Exterior lighting
  • Seats

Please note, recalls do not apply to normal wear and tear a vehicle endures over time. For example, car batteries need to be replaced after a certain amount of time. If they eventually fail, it’s not normally a sign of a defect. However, if the battery placed in a brand-new vehicle has a defect making it prone to early failure, it might be recalled.

How to Check if Your Car Has a Recall

Driving a safe vehicle is essential, and the first right step is asking: how do I know if my car has a recall? Fortunately, it’s easy to find out.

Check your mailbox. If a safety recall has been issued for your vehicle, you may have already been notified by mail, as auto manufacturers are required to attempt to notify owners and typically do so via mail. When it comes to vehicle recalls, manufacturers will typically merge their purchase records with current state vehicle registration records to locate any affected owners. This is a good reason to ensure your contact information is up to date with your county clerk.

If the safety recall is related to a piece of equipment, like a windshield wiper or cosmetic button, (where state records do not exist), the manufacturer will notify stores and other known purchasers of the equipment.

Check online or call the NHTSA. Even if you’ve never received notification of a safety recall via mail, it’s a great idea to double-check online. Millions of vehicles have at least one open safety recall at any time. You can find out if your vehicle has an outstanding safety recall by:

  • Visiting SaferCar.gov and entering your vehicle’s VIN number
  • Calling the Auto Safety Hotline of the NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236
  • Contacting your vehicle manufacturer

Worried that your car is too old to be included in this data? Don’t be. The NHTSA has recall data for all cars sold in the United States dating back to 1966.

Set up alerts. Create a Google Alert for the make and model of your car along with the word “recall.” When relevant information is published online, you’ll automatically receive a notice.

Download an app. Prefer using your smartphone? You can do just about anything with an app today. Checking recall information is one of them. Check your phone’s app store and see what options are available.

How do recalls work on used cars?

Regardless of whether or not you’re the original owner, you still qualify to have your recalls repaired free of charge (even recalls that were announced before you bought the car). Since manufacturers merge their own records with state vehicle registration information, it’s likely that you’ll still be notified of a recall even if you bought the vehicle used. Still, there are steps you can take to help ensure that you’re notified.

First, if you bought the car used from a private owner, call the manufacturer, and let them know you’re the current owner. The manufacturer’s customer service phone number can be found in your owner’s manual or online. The manufacturer will record your name and address, along with your car’s VIN, in their database for further communication.

My vehicle has a recall. What now?

First, don’t ignore it. Even minor recalls can involve life-threatening defects and failure to respond to a recall notice might void a warranty. Second, don’t hop in your car and head to the dealership right away, as they likely won’t be able to complete the repair that same day. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

If you were notified by a letter in the mail, read the letter carefully. It should tell you what you need to know, including what’s wrong with your car; what the potential risks may be; potential warning signs; how the manufacturer is fixing the problem; when the repair will be available; and instructions for what to do next.

Typically, this involves scheduling an appointment with the nearest dealership once replacement parts are available. Depending on the type of recall and the availability of parts, it could take weeks to months for the repair to be made. Many auto manufacturers are not prepared with enough replacement parts, and many dealers aren’t prepared with enough technicians.

Are recall repairs free?

You’re typically entitled to have any recalled parts repaired free of charge by your nearest dealership, according to the NHTSA. However, there might be cases where you’ll have to pay for repairs, like if your vehicle is exceptionally old (typically more than 15 years, according to the NHTSA). If you’re asked to pay for repairs, you should consider:

  • Contacting the dealer service manager. Explain the situation and point out that the work is required as part of a safety recall. If possible, show them the letter you received in the mail as well. This will often resolve any misunderstanding.
  • Contacting the vehicle manufacturer. Look for the toll-free customer service number in your car’s owner’s manual. Describe the problem, name the dealership, and share the steps you’ve taken to resolve the issue. They should look into the matter and will likely resolve the issue within a few days.
  • Contacting the NHTSA. If you still feel like your recall has not been properly dealt with, call the NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236.

How long does a dealership have to fix a recall?

As mentioned above, you’re typically entitled to free repairs (with some exceptions), but how quickly can you expect those repairs to be made? Typically, you’d contact your dealership and make an appointment. At this point, the repair time would depend on how serious the recall issue is. However, there are extenuating circumstance that could cause repairs to take longer. For example, sometimes recalls are issued and there aren’t replacement parts available yet. This means you could be waiting for a while. Also, particularly large recalls can affect tens of millions of vehicles, meaning the dealership’s repair schedule could be full.

If my car is recalled, do I get a rental?

When you take your car in for repairs following a recall, you might be wondering if you can get a rental while you wait for it to be fixed. While there aren’t laws that require auto manufacturers to give out rentals, Cars.com notes that the NHTSA has encouraged vehicle makers to provide rentals for serious issues that require extensive repairs or when repairs are not yet available.

If you end up with a recall that makes your car dangerous to drive or will keep your vehicle in the shop for several days, be sure to ask the dealership for a rental.

Is a safety recall the same thing as a technical service bulletin?

No, a vehicle safety recall is not the same thing as a technical service bulletin (or TSB). TSBs are issued by the auto manufacturer for less serious problems and are not typically readily available to consumers. According to Edmunds.com, TSB repairs are only made to resolve problems that are verified by dealer service technicians. These bulletins include repair instructions for technicians and updates to protocols.

Direct’s Commitment to Vehicle Safety

At Direct Auto Insurance, we’re committed to providing affordable auto insurance, but we’re also committed to helping our customers stay safe while they’re out on the road. If you think your tires, vehicle, or vehicle parts may have been recalled, enter your VIN at SaferCar.gov to quickly learn if a specific vehicle needs to be repaired.