Why don't people get their recalled cars fixed?

April 4, 2017

When you receive a recall notice from your car's manufacturer, do you immediately make plans to take it in for repairs? That question lies at the heart of "Consumer Preferences Regarding Vehicle-Related Safety Recalls", a new paper written by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle from the University of Michigan Sustainable Worldwide Transportation.

To gather data for that paper, Sivak and Schoettle polled 516 American adults. Respondents represented a rough cross-section of U.S. population by age, sex, income, and location.

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In the survey, Sivak and Schoettle asked participants about their responses to a wide range of recalls--not just those involving cars, but also recalls related to child seats, appliances, electronics, power tools, food, prescription drugs, and more. 

The good, the bad

The good news is that the vast majority of consumers said that they would respond to a recall of their vehicle. In fact, on a scale of 0 ("Definitely would not respond") to 10 ("Definitely would respond"), 79.8 percent of those polled rated an automobile recall as a 10. An additional 12.1 percent ranked the matter between six and nine on the scale, suggesting that they'd be inclined to have their cars repaired.

Only 4.7 percent said that they wouldn't be inclined to have their vehicles serviced, including 2.1 percent who said that they'd absolutely refuse to do so. A curious 3.5 percent didn't know what they'd do.

All told, the figures for auto recalls were higher than for almost any other type of recall apart from tires (which was within a couple of percentage points and therefore within the survey's margin of error). Consumers were least likely to respond to recalls of outdoor work equipment, household electronics, and power tools, with fewer than 50 percent of respondents putting those in the "Definitely would respond" category.

Also good: the majority of those who had had their products repaired or replaced did so within a few weeks. 

That said, the survey did yield a few alarming results. For example, owners of newer cars were far more likely to prioritize repairing their recalled vehicles than owners of older vehicles were. While 82.8 percent of the former group said that they "Definitely would respond" to a car recall, only 50.4 percent of the latter group felt the same. 

Also, among respondents who said they'd been notified of a recall, 12.7 percent said that they never bothered to contact the manufacturer for repairs or a replacement. When those folks were asked why they didn't respond, the most common answer was that they weren't concerned about the recall. 

Room for improvement

So, how can automakers improve their response rates for recalls? Sivak and Schoettle offer some interesting hints. 

For example, when asked about the ways in which they preferred to be notified about recalls, 73 percent chose conventional mail. Though respondents could choose multiple methods of notification, snail mail was still number one. (For reference, the number two response, email, was popular with 64.3 percent of participants.)

That suggests that even though there's a push toward moving recall notices online, eliminating postal mail would almost certainly reduce the number of consumers who respond to recalls. 

Also, many survey respondents said that proof of recall-related repairs should be required before registering or selling a vehicle. In fact, 59.7 percent said that such proof should be mandatory before registration can be renewed, and 60.7 percent said that it should be required before a vehicle can be sold. (That may strike fear into the heart of America's used car dealers.)

And not surprisingly, the length of time needed to repair a vehicle was often a deterrent. If a repair could be completed in 15 minutes, 80.6 percent of respondents said that they would definitely have the fix carried out. For repairs taking longer than 30 minutes, the figure plummeted to 44.8 percent. 

Our take

America's recall problem appears to be growing. In both 2014 and 2015 (the latest years for which firm data is available), more than 50 million U.S. vehicle owners received recall notices. That's not necessarily because vehicle quality is slipping; in many cases it's because screening efforts are catching vehicle problems earlier than before. And of course, we've seen several massive recalls in recent years, including the biggest of all time centered on Takata's fatally flawed airbags.

In other words, encouraging owners to have their cars repaired as soon as possible will continue to be a major safety concern.

You can find an abstract of Sivak and Schoettle's paper here

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