If you find out about a vehicle recall by reading a report in a newspaper or magazine, or on an automotive web site, don't dash right down to the nearest dealership to demand immediate satisfaction. Unless you are currently experiencing a serious safety problem, wait a while before proceeding. An official notice should be coming by first-class mail, directly from the manufacturer, who is allowed a "reasonable time" to make arrangements for any necessary repairs. If your vehicle is in fact actively showing signs related to a serious safety recall, definitely contact a dealer immediately.
As a result of several unpleasant incidents when information was held back, automakers know the importance of admitting responsibility if a safety problem is discovered—and taking action swiftly. That doesn't mean a dealership's technicians are ready and waiting instantly, wrenches in hand.
Not only do engineers have to isolate the cause of the safety problem, they must determine how the repair can be made at dealership service departments. Essential parts have to be obtained and made available to the company's dealers. Technicians might need specific instructions for remedying the safety defect.
Automakers know the importance of admitting responsibility if a safety problem is discovered—and taking action swiftly. When the manufacturer's notice finally arrives by mail, it should specify exactly what you need to do to get your vehicle repaired. It should indicate how long the repair takes, evaluate the safety risk caused by the defect, and explain any potential hazards. Finally, the notice should include a number to call if any problems develop when trying to get the work done.
Manufacturers use state motor-vehicle records to determine registered owners of the affected vehicles. Inevitably, some owners fail to receive their notices. If nothing arrives in a reasonable time, but you know a recall is taking place, you may have to take individual action.
First, take a look at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's web site. (This is the agency that administers safety recalls.) Look up the recall, searching by the make, model and year of your vehicle. Once you find the report, it should state when the notifications are (or were) supposed to be mailed. Recall reports can also be obtained over the phone by calling NHTSA.
Remember, not every recall affects every version of a given model. The NHTSA report often includes one or more limiting factors, indicating that the recall applies only to certain examples of a particular make and model. It might affect only cars with an automatic transmission, or with a specific accessory installed.
Take note of the NHTSA Campaign Identification Number. If a question ever comes up, or a dealer's service department has trouble finding information about a recall, it pays to be able to point to its official number.
Then, if a fair amount of time has passed and you still have not received any notification, contact the manufacturer at the phone number given in the NHTSA report. Have details about your car at hand, including the 17-character Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and the date you purchased the vehicle.
When it's time to get your vehicle fixed, any dealer selling that brand of car or truck is required to do to the repair if asked. Furthermore, federal law mandates that the repair be free of charge. Call the service department to schedule a repair visit, stating clearly that this involves a recall.
Don't be surprised if the folks in a strange dealership's service department fail to jump for joy upon learning of your arrival. Just because a dealership is required to do recall (and warranty) work on any vehicle that shows up, the people in charge don't have to like it. If you have regular maintenance work done at the dealership where you bought the car, they just might be happier to see you if a recall develops later.
Occasionally, a recall has no repair specified. This doesn't mean the matter is forgotten—just delayed. The manufacturer's engineers have isolated the problem, but haven't come up with a suitable remedy yet. You'll need to check back later to see what progress has been made.
Does the manufacturer and its dealers have to fix every single recall that's issued? There is one important exception: When the vehicle is more than eight years old when the defect is determined, the recall rules don't apply and repairs are not free. In addition, if you had the car fixed yourself before a recall was issued, the manufacturer is not obligated to provide reimbursement.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), www.nhtsa.dot.gov, (888) 327-4236 (Recall reports)