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Car Recalls: How Do Cars Get Recalled?

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More than 500 million U.S. vehicles have been recalled for safety defects since 1966, when the federal government started overseeing recalls. And with 16.2 million vehicles recalled last year alone, the chances are quite high that a used car you're considering has been affected by a recall.

How can your information aid the feds, and how do they issue recalls? What’s the difference between a recall and a TSB (technical service bulletin)? And just what, exactly, is a recall? Read on for the answers.

How are recalls issued, and are they ordered by the manufacturer or the government? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal government’s safety watchdog over automotive safety, bases its recall actions on the ratio of the number of complaints made about a particular vehicle to the total number of vehicles produced. If the number of defective vehicles is deemed excessive, the NHTSA will first open a Preliminary Investigation. Most Preliminary Investigations are closed after further investigation, but if the agency feels that more information is needed, an Engineering Analysis (EA) will be opened. The EA demands more information from the manufacturer and may involve independent testing and/or information collected by NHTSA officials. EAs are usually resolved within one year, sometimes leading to a recall request or order. The manufacturer may choose to contest the order in court, but most automakers wish to resolve the issue themselves by issuing the recall and notifying owners. Most recalls are issued by the manufacturers, prior to NHTSA involvement, but it’s nice to know that a government agency is in place to take charge if an automaker fails to be responsible.

What can be covered by recalls, and what isn’t? Anything relevant to safety is covered, as well as any major components that might be prone to premature failure. Items routinely replaced by maintenance — like brake pads, batteries, mufflers, and fluids — are not usually covered by recalls.

Is there a time limit on recalls? There is no deadline that applies to when drivers can bring their vehicles in for the recall repair, though since recalls usually pertain to safety, the sooner the better. Usually manufacturers are allowed a 60-day grace period from the time of issue of a recall until the time that recall repairs begin.

Your information is valuable. The NHTSA uses consumer information to launch the investigations that lead to recalls, and the agency also shares this information with automakers. Call 888-327-4236 to report a potential safety problem with your vehicle. The agency will mail you a form that asks for more information about your vehicle and permission for the agency to share your problem with the automaker.

Okay, so what’s a TSB (technical service bulletin)? If a manufacturer decides that the issue is a design issue or a common problem not pertaining to safety, a Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, may be issued. Manufacturers often will cover the cost of problems revealed in TSBs if the problem is particularly endemic, and even if they don’t you will have a clear remedy for a common (and potentially frustrating) problem with your vehicle. Ask a technician at the dealership how common your problem is, and if you feel like your repair should be compensated, call the regional service manager (your dealership will be able to supply the number).

How can you find out if there are recalls or TSBs that apply to your car? The best way to find out about recalls and TSBs is again through the NHTSA Web site. You may also search for consumer complaints similar to yours. Sometimes, TSBs might not be entered into the agency’s database for a few weeks, so for the latest information regarding service bulletins, car clubs that apply to your model are often the best place to check, or by just calling the automaker’s customer relations number.

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