According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, car crashes are the number one cause of death for Americans under the age of 34. Motor vehicle safety issues also result in over $230 billion in damages, medical and insurance costs, and lost productivity.
With that in mind, the agency writes, “[c]learly there is a need for dramatic improvement in motor vehicle safety. Getting unsafe vehicles off the road is integral safety and saving lives.”
But how does the NHTSA determine which cars need to be recalled?
Voluntary Recalls vs. NHTSA Recalls
If an automaker or parts manufacturer becomes aware of a defect in their products, they may issue a voluntary recall. Often, this action is based on a number of complaints from customers who experience the same problem with their vehicle.
For example, if multiple owners of the same make and model report that their vehicle stalls out while driving, then that’s a clear indicator that something has gone wrong with manufacturing process. The automaker will voluntarily issue a recall once they determine what caused the problem and fix the issue for free.
Sometimes, however, the NHTSA will have to step in. They may launch an investigation if date indicates an unusual number of accidents or injuries are linked to a particular type of vehicle. Rarely, the NHTSA will order the automaker to perform its own supervised investigation. If the organization determines that the automaker needs to take action, the NHTSA will order them to recall the affected vehicles.
Safety-Related Defects Only
While any automaker can their own vehicles for any reason, the NHTSA only enforces safety-related recalls. Here’s what they consider to be vital safety issues:
- Steering components that break suddenly causing partial or complete loss of vehicle control.
- Problems with fuel system components, particularly in their susceptibility to crash damage, that result in leakage of fuel and possibly cause vehicle fires.
- Accelerator controls that may break or stick.
- Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control.
- Engine cooling fan blades that break unexpectedly causing injury to persons working on a vehicle.
- Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate properly.
- Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use.
- Critical vehicle components that break, fall apart, or separate from the vehicle, causing potential loss of vehicle control or injury to persons inside or outside the vehicle.
- Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting.
- Car ramps or jacks that may collapse and cause injury to someone working on a vehicle.
- Air bags that deploy under conditions for which they are not intended to deploy.
- Child safety seats that contain defective safety belts, buckles, or components that create a risk of injury, not only in a vehicle crash but also in non-operational safety of a motor vehicle.
That means a purely cosmetic defect will not trigger a mandatory recall. And if the NHTSA doesn’t require a repair, then its unlikely that automakers will take on the expense to fix something. For example, a malfunctioning radio isn’t considered to be a safety issue and does not break any federal regulations. Automakers are not obligated to recall and fix the radio for free.
How Can You Report a Problem with Your Vehicle?
If you feel like there is an important safety defect in your vehicle, you should contact the NHTSA. Their hotlines are 1-888-327-4236 or 1-800-424-9393. In addition, you can visit Safercar.gov to make a complaint online.