Widespread problems with a certain vehicle can make driving risky business. If enough people report the same type of problem, a car manufacturer may issue a voluntary recall, or the NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) may force a recall.

Typical safety threats include faulty airbags, problems with steering systems, accelerators that freeze, and fire-causing wiring or fluid leaks. The NHTSA is most concerned with widespread problems that result in a safety hazard for drivers and their passengers. So, problems with systems like the power locks or seat position memory system aren’t of great concern to the NHTSA.

Why vehicles are recalled

A car may be recalled because of a small defect or a major problem. Customer complaints, enforcement by government agencies, and voluntary recalls from the car manufacturer all play a part in the process.

Manufacturers may only realize that something is wrong when they get several complaints about a certain vehicle from owners. Every complaint is carefully investigated to determine if the problem is widespread or simply an isolated incident.

Recalls are issued based on evidence that the problem lies with the manufacturing process or the part. Customer complaint does not dictate whether a vehicle is recalled. In fact, many recalls happen because a problem was noticed by the manufacturer well before drivers registered complaints.

Car recalls are common

If the recall is specific to the make and model of a vehicle you own, you’ll receive notification from the manufacturer. For used cars, notification can fall through the cracks as vehicles change hands. Many owners ignore recall letters if their car isn’t showing signs of trouble. It’s never safe to assume that a used car that has been recalled was fixed.

Just one recall can affect millions of vehicles. For example, the Takata recalls affect more than 4.3 million airbag units. Watching the news isn’t the best way to get information on recalls, as they only report the ones that affect the largest amount of people or are especially dramatic.

The NHTSA is committed to improving their system for identifying problems with cars, so the number of recalls is on the rise. Consumer watchdog groups are also part of the cause of an increased number of vehicle recalls.

How to find out if the car you purchased or are considering purchasing has been recalled

You can learn about recalls at the automobile manufacturer’s website if you have the VIN of the car. If there was a recall, finding out if the problem was fixed will be available there, as well.

Transport Canada maintains a complete database of automobile recalls that is searchable by make, model, and year range. They also offer an RSS web feed that provides the most recent recall information.

The recent Takata airbag recalls affected many vehicles, and the most recent expansion of those recalls happened in May of 2015. Transport Canada maintains an up-to-date database of Takata recalls in Canada that is also searchable by recall number, recall date, manufacturer, make, and model. If you own or are considering purchasing a car that is included in the Takata airbag recall, it’s crucial to have the vehicle serviced immediately.

No matter the nature of the recall, if the car is unsafe to drive, the manufacturer’s website, the recall notice, or the information at Transport Canada will offer that information. In fact, their ability to report on and monitor vehicle recalls continues to increase as the Government of Canada strengthens their recall system.

The cost of repairing a recalled vehicle

In most cases, the manufacturer of the car will pay for the necessary repairs or part replacements as part of the recall. Since they agree that the issue is the result of a problem with their part or manufacturing process, the car owner typically bears no financial responsibility for fixing the problem.

If the recall poses a safety risk, it’s best to not drive the car until it is fixed by the manufacturer. Up to 25% of recall notices are completely ignored by car owners. Responding to recall notices by taking the car into a dealership to get it fixed is part of responsible vehicle ownership. Manufacturers call it “recall fatigue” and consumers are often unwilling to give up their time and their car to get the necessary work performed.

Recalls don’t indicate poor quality

Manufactures that routinely issue recalls are concerned with the safety of their customers. Recalling a car for any issue indicates a sense of responsibility on the part of the car maker.

Not only do voluntary manufacturer recalls serve the people who drive the cars in question, they also help create an environment that is safer for everyone on the road. Manufacturers learn from problems with their vehicles, as well. This makes future generations of cars less likely to be the subject of a safety recall.

Sometimes, a part is simply prone to wearing out more quickly than a manufacturer anticipated and they’ll issue a recall not because anything went wrong in the manufacturing process, but because there’s a problem with the part or system.

Cars that have more than one recall aren’t necessarily poor quality vehicles. Recalls simply mean that the manufacturer is participating in the process of keeping drivers and the people they share the road with safe.

Despite a rising number of recalls, cars are safer

Traffic deaths dropped 25% in the 10 years between 2003 and 2013, and analysts say it’s a combination of an improved recall system and better safety features that create a safer driving environment.

Pressure from consumers and regulators causes automakers to prioritize safety and crash-test ratings. The looming threat of expensive lawsuits also causes automakers to take the safety of the vehicles that come out of their manufacturing facilities more seriously.

Not every recall is urgent, but the point of issuing many recalls is to prevent catastrophic problems with essential systems later. For that reason alone, it’s important to make getting a recalled vehicle fixed a priority.

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