Should You Ignore an Auto Recall?
While automakers are building better cars, trucks and SUVs than at any other time in history, sometimes ghosts in the machine surface that need fixing. Don't ignore them. Here's why.
One of the largest recalls on record, 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus brand cars were called into dealers to replace rubber floor mats that would shift position and jam the gas pedal, causing unintended and rapid acceleration.
Over the past two decades, from defective Firestone tires on the first-generation Ford Explorer to Toyota's current troubles with slipping floor mats, major oversights in the automobile research and design process have caused carmakers to recall millions of vehicles worldwide. This can leave car owners anxious, confused and infuriated. Yet, even as federal law has pushed manufacturers to swiftly address auto defects, a surprising number of consumers still ignore recall notices, even though the free repairs can rectify potentially disastrous design flaws.
It's true: One in every four car owners fails to bring their auto in for recall work, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which collects consumer complaints, coordinates recalls with manufacturers and monitors results. And that's just for cars. In recalls of child safety seats, only half of the owners respond to the campaigns. And for tires — one of the more safety-sensitive components on a car — the recall response rate dips below 30 percent.
Whether it's procrastination, indifference or plain oversight, safety and consumer experts say that gap is leaving owners and passengers at risk. "It's imperative that the public take recalls seriously and bring cars in for repairs," says Eric Bolton, a NHTSA spokesman. "It's a potentially life- and limb-saving issue for you, your family or even other motorists."
Better Cars, but Not Perfect
By any objective measure, today's cars are better-built and more reliable than those of 20 or 30 years ago. According to J.D. Power and Associates' respected Initial Quality Study, which measures problems in the first 90 days of ownership, vehicle defects have been reduced by 70 percent since 1987, an average improvement of 5.3 percent each year.
Even so, problems still get past even the most stringent quality-control experts and can affect both the most complex of systems and the simplest, taken-for-granted components. Take the recent recall by Toyota of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus brand cars. The rubber floor mats in certain models can shift position and jam the gas pedal, causing unintended and rapid acceleration.
There's an easy interim fix for this problem. Toyota and NHTSA recommend that affected owners simply remove the mats as the investigation continues. But for many recalls, publicity is less widespread and the fixes more complicated, which spotlights the need for consumers to stay abreast of the issues that might affect their particular model vehicle, unless they want to bear the full brunt of a costly design-related repair on their own.
Automakers use state auto registration data to track owners and then notify them by mail about a recall. But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., says that some owners inevitably fall through the reporting cracks, especially if they own older model vehicles that have traded hands. Recall data suggest that 20 percent of owners who don't have repairs performed say they never received notice, Ditlow says.
Stay Informed, Stay Safe
Experts recommend that car owners stay in the loop and keep in touch with manufacturers, local dealers and agencies that monitor safety. The NHTSA is urging consumers to sign up online for automatic recall notifications at its safercar.gov Web site. Consumers can also track ongoing recalls at the site by entering the year, make and model of their vehicle.
Carfax, a company that provides in-depth vehicle reports for a fee, now offers a free recall check on its Web site. Owners can enter their 17-character vehicle identification number — the VIN that's displayed on every car's upper dashboard — and find out immediately if it has a recall defect.
However, your dealer should be a consumer's first line of defense when it comes to recalls, according to Auto Safety's Ditlow. Owners should make a point of inquiring about new or ongoing issues when they bring their machines in for scheduled maintenance. The same goes for asking what's new in the technical service bulletins, or TSBs, which manufacturers issue to dealers and technicians, alerting them to potential problems with models and offering repair solutions.