Safety Recalls for Cars and Motorcycles

Recalls: What happens when a defect in your vehicle creates a safety hazard?

Recalls for cars have been in the news lately following Toyota's unfortunate safety problems. When a hazardous defect is discovered in a line of vehicles -- a manufacturing flaw that affects a make and model manufactured in a certain year, for example -- owners are entitled to notification of the defect and a chance for a free fix, called a recall. Read on to learn how the recall process works, what remedies are available for recalled vehicles, how to search for recalls affecting your vehicle, and what to do if the manufacturer doesn't meet its responsibilities under the recall.

What Is a Safety Recall?

A safety defect in a car, motorcycle, or other vehicle is usually discovered by the vehicle's manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sometimes after complaints from vehicle owners. When a manufacturer or the NHTSA discovers a safety defect in a particular car, motorcycle, or other vehicle, the manufacturer must notify vehicle owners of the problem and provide the opportunity for a remedy, such as a free repair.

Safety recalls are governed by federal law. In general, the law defines a safety defect as a problem that:

  • poses a safety risk in motor vehicles, and
  • exists in a group of cars or other vehicles of the same design or manufacture (or equipment of the same type and manufacture).

Defects that are not related to safety are not covered by federal law and are not subject to recall. However, non-safety-related defects could form the basis for a product liability claim or lawsuit. (See "What to Do If There Is No Safety Recall," below, to learn more about product liability claims.)

Safety Recall Procedures

Whether a safety recall is initiated by the vehicle manufacturer or ordered by the NHTSA, the manufacturer has a duty to contact owners of the recalled vehicle. Federal law requires that the vehicle manufacturer take a number of steps in connection with a safety recall -- including filing a public report, searching for affected owners, and sending out notification letters.

File a public report of the safety recall. This report must identify the vehicle or equipment that's affected by the recall, and also must contain a description of:

  • the defect and the danger it could pose
  • the major events that resulted in the recall determination
  • the remedy available to vehicle owners, and
  • a schedule for the recall.

Search for vehicle or equipment owners. Federal law specifies the steps that manufacturers must take in trying to locate owners of recalled vehicles or equipment. If a vehicle is recalled, the manufacturer must merge its own records of vehicle purchasers with current state vehicle registration information. If equipment is recalled, where state registration records do not exist, manufacturers must notify their distribution chain and anyone they know that purchased the recalled equipment.

Provide owners with a notification letter. This letter must describe the defect, the risk or hazard posed by the defect, the free remedy, when the remedy will be available, how long the remedy will take, and what the owner can do if the manufacturer does not correct the problem for free within a reasonable time period.

Remedies If Your Vehicle Is Recalled

Under federal law, when a vehicle is recalled the remedies that are meant to correct the safety defect must be both free and effective. The NHTSA monitors manufacturers' conduct during safety recalls to make sure they comply with these standards. Keep in mind that if you own the recalled vehicle, you are entitled to a free remedy even if you did not receive the notification letter.

Available Remedies. The manufacturer may choose the specific remedy, as long as it is effective in resolving the safety problem. Remedies might include:

  • repair of the defect
  • repurchase of the vehicle or equipment, or
  • replacement of the vehicle or equipment.

If the remedy initially offered by the manufacturer is ineffective, the NHTSA may require the manufacturer to provide a different remedy.

Unavailable Remedies. If your car is more than ten years old on the date the defect is determined, the manufacturer does not have to remedy the problem. That doesn't mean the defect is not present in your car, it just means you will have to pay for repairs yourself. The vehicle manufacturer is also not required to reimburse vehicle owners for:

  • damage caused by the defect, or
  • certain costs incurred in correcting the defect prior to the recall.

If you repaired the defect prior to the date of recall, contact the manufacturer anyway. Most manufacturers will reimburse you for the repair, even though they are not required to do so.

What to Do If the Manufacturer Doesn't Comply

In the majority of safety recall cases, the manufacturer corrects the problem for free and in a timely manner. But if, for some reason, the manufacturer refuses to correct the vehicle defect -- or won't do it for free -- you should take the following steps:

  • Contact the service manager. If the dealer service department won't correct the problem, contact the manager of the department. Show the manager the notification letter, if you have one, and explain the problem.
  • Contact the manufacturer. If you can't get cooperation from the service manager, the next step is to contact the manufacturer. Describe your vehicle, the recall, and the steps you took to get it corrected at the service department.
  • Contact the NHTSA. If you are still unable to get relief, contact the NHTSA. Although you can skip the first two steps and contact NHTSA immediately, it is usually better to contact the service manager and manufacturer first -- since most problems are solved at those levels. You can contact the NHTSA by telephone at 888-327-4236 or by mail at 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE, West Building, Washington, D.C. 20590. Or fill out a form at the NHTSA's interactive website at

How to Find Out About Recalls

Sometimes consumers suspect their vehicle might be subject to a safety recall, but they haven't received a notification letter. To find out if your car has been recalled, contact the NHTSA. They'll have records of all recalled vehicles and equipment, and of ongoing and closed investigations.

  • Call the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigations at 888-327-4236.
  • Access the NHTSA's list of recalled vehicles and equipment at
  • Check the NHTSA's defect investigation reports (again, at These web pages list ongoing investigations into alleged safety defects and investigations that have been closed after a determination was made to recall or not recall the vehicle.

The NHTSA encourages consumers to report safety problems. If numerous vehicle owners file a complaint over a similar problem, the NHTSA may open a defect investigation.

What to Do If There Is No Safety Recall

If your car has a defect that is not subject to a safety recall, you still may be able to get relief. First, check to see if your warranty is in effect and might cover the problem. If so, the manufacturer will be required to repair the problem free of charge.

If your vehicle has a non-safety-related defect, you may still be able to recover the cost of repairs or other damages through a product liability claim. These are lawsuits brought by private individuals (not by the government or a government agency) alleging that a vehicle (or vehicle part) has a manufacturing flaw or an unreasonably dangerous design. (To learn more about product liability claims, see Nolo's article Product Liability Claims Involving Defective Cars.)

If your car is not subject to a recall and you want to learn more about a potential product liability claim, be aware that the legal and mechanical issues in these cases are typically complex and highly technical. If you want to discuss your case with a lawyer, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Or go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to find out about the lawyer's experience, if any, with vehicle defect cases).

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