Has your car been recalled for a safety issue? Here’s what to do next.

Woman talking to a mechanic about her recalled carImage: Woman talking to a mechanic about her recalled car

In a Nutshell

Manufacturers recall millions of vehicles each year. If you aren’t sure if a safety recall has been issued on your vehicle, check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recall database. And if your car has been recalled, be sure to read the recall letter and figure out the right next steps to make sure you stay safe on the road.
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Did you know more than 29 million cars were recalled in 2018?

It’s true — and while the number of vehicle recalls dipped in 2017 and 2018, auto manufacturers still recalled more cars from 2014 to 2018 (more than 210 million) as they did in the preceding decade (173 million), according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

If you’re dealing with a car recall — or aren’t sure if your car has been recalled — you’ve come to the right place. Buckle up for a drive through the ins and outs of car recalls.

Car recalls: What you need to know to stay safe on the road

  1. What is a car recall?
  2. How do I find out about a car recall on my vehicle?
  3. What should I do if my car has a recall?
  4. Do I have to pay for the repairs?
  5. Where do I bring my car to fix it, and how long will it take?
  6. Should I stop driving immediately after a car recall?
  7. How do I know if my used car has been recalled?

1. What is a car recall?

An automaker or the NHTSA will issue a recall if it determines that the car, vehicle equipment or tires pose a safety risk or don’t meet safety standards. Your car could be recalled for any number of reasons.

There could be a safety-related defect with the steering, brakes, tires, seat belts, air bags or ignition switch, to name a few.

In most cases, auto manufacturers voluntarily make the decision to conduct a recall when they discover one of these defects. But what happens if they decide to ignore the problem or fail to remedy the defect on their own accord?

Fortunately, there’s a backup plan and it may all start with you — the vehicle owner. If you notice a problem with your vehicle, you can report it to the NHTSA. Your complaint will be added to a public database, and if other people report a similar problem, the NHTSA may open an investigation that could ultimately result in a safety recall.

Regardless of who makes the decision to conduct a recall, manufacturers are required to fix the problem. They may opt to repair it, replace it or offer a refund, but you shouldn’t be on the hook for any expenses associated with the recall. More on that later.

2. How do I find out about a car recall on my vehicle?

According to the NHTSA’s Safety Recall Compendium, auto manufacturers must notify vehicle owners of a safety defect or noncompliance “within a reasonable period of time.” If your car is the subject of a safety recall, they’re expected to send the registered car owner a notification letter within 60 days of notifying NHTSA of a recall decision.

To make sure you don’t fall through the cracks, we recommend registering your new and used cars with the appropriate manufacturer. This way, they’ll know to alert you when a recall is issued. Just be sure to provide the manufacturer with your new address after a move.

If you suspect your car has been recalled but you haven’t received a notification yet, it doesn’t hurt to contact the manufacturer or a local authorized dealer to check. You can also sign up to get recall information via email alerts from the NHTSA.

The NHTSA recommends checking its recall database twice a year to see whether your car has any open safety recalls. Consider setting a calendar reminder so you don’t forget.

For the best results, search using your car’s 17-character vehicle identification number, or VIN. It can be found on your registration paperwork and your insurance card, though you can also look for it on the lower left side of your car’s windshield (the driver’s side). If you don’t have the VIN on hand, you may also search the database for your car’s make, model and year.

3. What should I do if my car has a recall?

The first thing to do is to read the recall letter from the manufacturer.

The recall letter should describe the safety issue, the risks it poses and any warning signs you should be aware of. It should also provide instructions for scheduling a time to have the issue fixed at a local dealer.

You may be instructed to contact your local dealer to set up an appointment for the repairs to be made. If you’re having trouble reaching the dealer, contact the manufacturer and ask for help. If neither cooperates, you may also file an NHTSA complaint against either the dealer or the manufacturer.

Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. If you ignore the recall, you may put yourself, your passengers and other drivers who share the road with you in danger.

4. Do I have to pay for the repairs?

In most cases, no.

Whether you purchased your car new or bought it used, the manufacturer is typically responsible for fixing any safety defects free of charge. If you’re feeling ambitious and make the repairs on your own, you could be eligible for reimbursement.

Here’s the catch: If your car is more than 10 years old, the manufacturer isn’t obligated to fix the issue for free. Some manufacturers will choose to do so anyway, so it’s worth asking.

Keep in mind that you may also be charged for any additional repairs you consent to that fall outside the scope of the recall. Paying out-of-pocket for these kinds of expenses is never fun, but we recommend addressing safety issues as they happen. After all, you can’t really put a price on safety.

5. Where do I bring my car to fix it, and how long will it take?

In most cases, the recall letter will direct you to a local authorized dealership. So, if you’ve moved, you don’t necessarily have to return to the dealer where you bought the car.

As far as how long it will take to fix your car — well, that depends.

The bigger the recall, the longer you may wait for an appointment with a local dealership. If worse comes to worst and you don’t feel comfortable driving, park your car until the repairs can be made.

6. Should I stop driving immediately after a car recall?

Possibly. The recall letter should warn you if your car is too dangerous to drive.

If you’re not sure, contact the manufacturer or a local dealer. Better safe than sorry.

7. How do I know if my used car has been recalled?

If you’re thinking about buying a used car, make sure you search the VIN in the NHTSA’s recall database. This can help you determine if it’s been recalled and whether the necessary repairs were made.

We mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: After you purchase a used car, you should immediately contact the manufacturer and register the car to receive recall notices going forward.

Keep in mind, used cars that are more than 10 years old may not qualify for free repairs as part of a safety recall.

What’s next?

If your car has been recalled for a safety issue, don’t panic. Remember, recalls are extremely common and could be issued for any number of reasons. Your best bet is to act and get the issue fixed as soon as possible.

Usually, that won’t mean any extra strain on your wallet. Manufacturers typically handle safety recalls for free, though it may take a bit of patience on your part.

On a more general note, the prevalence of safety recalls should serve as a reminder to always take caution when driving. Whether you’re heading to work, school or the grocery store, it pays to stay alert and heed any warning signs.

And if the manufacturer says your car isn’t safe to drive, listen to them. Trust us: It’s not worth the risk.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.