Recalls Explained: How the Government Forces Automakers to Fix Things

Recalls Explained: How the Government Forces Automakers to Fix Things

If in the past few months you’ve turned on your television, read anything at all, or simply existed within the borders of the United States, it’s likely you’ve seen a story involving a vehicle recall. These happen when an automaker admits that some of its vehicles are flawed in some fundamental way and sets about rectifying the issue. Although recalls are quite common and occur all the time, the recent General Motors ignition-switch recall combined with the modern news cycle has put these vehicular mulligans in the national consciousness like perhaps never before. Given that, we’ve assembled a primer on how they should work.

Automakers Usually Do it First

The basics of the recall process are pretty simple: The automaker finds the problem, the automaker reports the problem, letters get mailed, and cars get fixed. In most cases, that’s exactly how it works. In the last 10 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—the agency responsible for setting every safety standard on the books since it was formed in 1970—says automakers have recalled 83 million vehicles on their own, compared with about 86 million in actions initiated by the agency.

While that’s a reassuring stat, automakers don’t make money off altruism. Vehicle manufacturers are required to file quarterly reports to the agency, known as Early Warning Reporting, that state all known claims of property damage, death, injury, warranty claims, owner complaints, and internal studies for their past and present models. If an automaker decides a recall is necessary, it has to inform NHTSA within five business days of making that decision and write a detailed timeline of how it discovered the problem and all steps taken to resolve it. Within 60 days, all affected vehicle owners must be notified by mail. Repairs typically begin within weeks of the mailings, but parts sometimes can be delayed by months. So long as the automaker is transparent with the agency, this isn’t a problem.

How NHTSA Works a Recall

1. Research

NHTSA receives tens of thousands of complaints from car owners each year on its website and recorded on their phone hotline. They’ll personally respond if a complaint is fuzzy, although often they simply post them to the public database on where anyone can search detailed complaints, broken down by the troublesome component, for any model year car. From here, the Office of Defects Investigation takes a look at technical service bulletins that automakers send to dealers—which are publicly posted by NHTSA—in addition to tracking foreign recalls, insurance data, federal crash data, and news websites like this one, not to mention the work of NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigations unit. They also look at petitions sent in by consumer groups and individuals who want the agency to open a formal investigation, which is then the only public indicator that NHTSA has decided to pursue a potential problem.

2. Preliminary Evaluation

While trends and patterns are what set off investigations, a single complaint can trigger the first step of a recall, known as a preliminary evaluation. Here, the agency asks the automaker to submit all available information pertaining to the alleged defect. This is supposed to take about four months, but due to the launguorous speed of legal departments and the work saddled on the agency’s small investigative staff, the process can often take double the time or longer.

3. Engineering Analysis

Now things get serious. NHTSA, in its admission that a problem is likely to exist, probes the automaker for more information, such as engineering studies and quality checks, and adds the details to its case file. This typically paints a clearer picture of the problem’s severity because the report now combines multiple streams of information from two major sources. An engineering analysis is supposed to take up to one year, but a significant number of them sit for two or even three years. Sometimes, as with the case of Tesla’s battery fires and reinforced undercarriage, an automaker will go to extra lengths to repair the cars under investigation before the agency reaches a decision. Or, if the statistics don’t appear to say anything, the agency will close it and move on to the next one.

4. Recall

If a manufacturer says “nothing wrong here” in the face of mounting evidence, the investigator in charge presents the findings to a peer review panel, which makes the last call. If the agency calls a manufacturer’s bluff, the recall begins—and even then, the agency keeps an eye out to make sure everything goes right, happens on time, and doesn’t need to be expanded. This supervision also occurs when a manufacturer recalls the cars voluntarily.

If NHTSA finds during the recall process that an automaker failed to report a defect in a timely manner, it can levy a $17.35 million fine for each recall. This is entirely arbitrary, as automakers make it a point to declare that they didn’t consider the issue a documented, repeatable problem until a certain date.

But NHTSA has no legal authority in and of itself, so it can’t compel any manufacturer to stage a recall. The agency invites a challenge, but when it has had enough, it will lean on U.S. attorneys to pick up the slack in court. It hardly ever comes to that point. Chrysler, after receiving a recall request last year from NHTSA to repair gas tanks on Grand Cherokees and Libertys, openly defied the agency and attempted to prove its findings insufficient. Public pressure—and photos of mangled, burnt-out SUVs appearing on the internet—turned the standoff into a recall in only two weeks.

Three Key Questions

How do you know if a used car has been fixed under recall?

Unless you buy reports (e.g. Carfax) and can verify what each repair was for, you don’t. By August, NHTSA says it will create a new database, searchable by VIN, that will let car owners see all recall-related repairs done on a particular vehicle for free.

I’ve got a problem that my dealer won’t address or can’t fix, and I’ve read about this issue on forums and still have no recourse. Is it even worth sending a complaint to NHTSA?

Yes, absolutely. NHTSA says it reads every complaint, and to prove that, you can find recalls that were initiated by one person. Keep a written log of your car’s problems and save all service and accident records. The more detail you can provide NHTSA, the more likely its staff will aggregate your complaint along with others like it—this is what is supposed to start a preliminary evaluation.

News: GM Fined $35 Million for Ignition-Switch Recall Delay
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How can the government possibly keep tabs on all these problems? It seems impossible.
It almost is. Like any government agency, there is only so much progress that can cut through the bureaucracy, insufficient oversight, and the sheer number of cases brought to a limited staff and budget. The agency, itself currently under investigation for the General Motors ignition-switch recalls, has readily admitted that it has problems. But picture how things would be without NHTSA. Brazil, Mexico, China, and other countries that have little to no car- or road-safety laws are by every statistic deadlier places to drive.

About Clifford Atiyeh