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How Do Motor Vehicle Recalls Work?

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Tina Robinson4 years ago

General Motors’ recent string of recalls has raised questions about how long the manufacturer was aware of problems with a faulty ignition switch as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) ability to oversee recalls.

In the aftermath, consumers may be wondering of how motor vehicle recalls work.

The following is an overview of motor vehicle safety recalls and what rights consumers may have.

History of the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act

According to the NHTSA, the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act was enacted in 1966 giving the NHTSA the authorization to issue vehicle safety standards and require manufacturers to issue recalls for unsafe vehicles.

Since then the NHTSA has overseen the recall of:

Motor Vehicle Safety Standards

Minimum performance requirements are set by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Those requirements apply to parts of the vehicle that most affect safe operation, such as brakes and tires, or those that protect drivers and passengers from death or serious injury.

Safety-related defects are considered to pose “a risk to motor vehicle safety” and “may exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacture.”

How Safety Recalls Work

Recalls are initiated when a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment is found to have a safety-related defect or does not comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

This determination is made by either the vehicle manufacturer or through an investigation conducted by the NHTSA.

Once a recall has been determined to be necessary, the manufacturer must file a public report containing the following information:

  • A description of the safety-related defect or noncompliance
  • A description of the involved vehicle or piece of equipment
  • The major events that triggered the recall
  • A description of the remedy
  • A schedule of the recall

Manufacturers must also attempt to notify owners of the recalled vehicle or motor vehicle equipment.

For motor vehicles, this means combining the manufacturer’s records with current state vehicle registration records.

For equipment that does not have a registration, manufacturers must notify distribution chains and known purchasers.

How Do Manufacturers Remedy Recalled Vehicles?

Manufacturers have three options for remediating defects: repair, replacement and refund.

Repairs are made to vehicles at no charge, vehicles may be replaced with a similar vehicle, or manufacturers may refund the purchase price of the vehicle minus depreciation.

There are some limitations on obtaining remedies at no charge:

  • The vehicle cannot be “more than 10 years old on the date the defect or noncompliance is determined.”
  • Tires must be purchased “within 5 years of the defect or noncompliance,” AND the tires must be brought to the dealer within 60 days of the recall.

Safety-related motor vehicle recalls do not cover reimbursement for damages that may have been caused by the defect or noncompliance.

The NHTSA notes that owners may attempt to “recover losses privately.” Specifically, the law states that “recall remedies are in addition to other available legal remedies. “


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