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Safety recalls are a regular occurrence in the automotive industry, as many vehicles are found to be unsafe due to design or manufacturing flaws after they were sold to the public. Sadly, many people are injured or killed before a recall is made or is fully implemented.

According to the New York Times, more than 62 million vehicles were recalled in the United States in 2014 — the highest annual number ever recorded. In fact, that was twice the 30 million recalls in the previous record year, 2004. More typical numbers of annual auto recalls are 19 million in 2003 and 16.4 million in 2009.

A safety recall can be made for a wide variety of reasons, such as brake failure, door lock failure, tire blowout or airbag failure. Clearly, these are all potentially deadly problems, so these recalls are certainly merited. After a safety recall, many owners can simply take their vehicle to the nearest dealer for a free repair or replacement part.

Few studies have been done on the effect of recalls on traffic safety. However, a recall effectiveness study done by State University of New York and Hood College found that recalls of a particular model can reduce accidents of that model by about 10 percent, with the results varying 8-19 percent depending on the specification. It also concluded that “higher correction rates of recall defects are predicted to decrease the number of accidents.”

History of Vehicle Safety Recalls

Auto safety recalls were mandated by 1966’s passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, a federal law. This act created the NHTSA and gave it authority to set and administer safety standards for motor vehicles.

In practical terms, an auto safety recall is made when either the manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds that autos have safety-related defects or don’t comply with federal safety standards.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, of which the NHTSA is a part, the NHTSA has the authority to order a safety recall that the manufacturer then must carry out. The manufacturer also can make an auto recall voluntarily and independently of the NHTSA, even if the NHTSA has not ordered one.

After a recall is made, the NHTSA monitors it to make sure manufacturers provide vehicle owners with safe, free and effective remedies in accordance with the Safety Act and other federal regulations.

While individual states may provide information to the NHTSA or manufacturers related to a recall, states do not have the legal authority to order auto recalls.

Safety Recall Procedure

After a manufacturer or the NHTSA has made an auto recall, the manufacturer must file a public report to describe the safety-related defect or its noncompliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards. This report also must note the vehicles involved, significant events leading to the recall, an assessment of the remedy and a recall schedule.

Next, the manufacturer must search for vehicle or equipment owners in order to notify them of the auto recall. This is a requirement of federal law. To identify owners, manufacturers must merge their records of vehicle buyers with up-to-date information on state vehicle registration. Or, in some cases of locating defective equipment, they must notify their distributors and known purchasers.

Every recall notification letter must describe:

  • The defect or noncompliance
  • The hazard or risk posed by the defect
  • A brief description of the remedy, which must be provided free of charge.

The letter also must inform consumers when the remedy will be available and ­­how long repairs will take, as well as what they can do if they are unable to have the problem corrected in a reasonable time. Owners are expected to have free recall repairs made as quickly as possible. Even if a vehicle owner doesn’t receive a notification letter, the manufacturer has a legal obligation to provide a free remedy if and when the owner requests it.

Defective tire recalls must be addressed within 60 days of being notified of the recall. All other recalls remain in effect for the life of the product.

As for damages caused by a defect or by noncompliance with recall regulations, the Safety Act of 1966 does not provide for reimbursement by manufacturers. However, owners of recalled vehicles still could seek reimbursement of costs privately by means of an auto recall lawsuit, which this law firm can provide.

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