Everything You Need To Know About Car Recalls


What do vehicle recalls mean in the grand scheme of things?

Read in this article:

What is a Car Recall?

Vehicle recalls happen all the time, whether for critical safety repairs or for other manufacturing faults. It is important to know whether you have a reason for concern if your car is recalled and what you should do in the event.

Cars affected by car recalls must be returned to dealerships to be repaired. But what is a car recall? This is when the manufacturer or NHTSA feels that a vehicle, its equipment, seats, or tires create a safety risk, or it fails to meet minimum safety standards, and the units affected are called back to fix the problem. However, not all car problems warrant recalls. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may also issue recalls for emissions-related problems. In the US, fines may be imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) if manufacturers don't disclose car defects or if they downplay the seriousness thereof.

Vehicle Recalls freepik.com

Understanding the Process of Car Recalls

Carmakers usually initiate car safety recalls once car defects and/or malfunctions have been identified, either in the factory or via feedback from dealers or customers. At times, the NHTSA receives car complaints directly from members of the public and subsequently investigates them. If the automaker has not issued a recall and the NHTSA finds that it is serious enough, it will issue the recall itself. "How do car recalls work?" you may ask. In most cases, a local dealership for the brand will contact you to schedule a return of the defective car in order to perform the necessary repairs.

Where You can Find Recall Information

Who is going to let you know about a recall on your car?

  • Automakers send out notices via mail, often titled 'Safety Recall Notice'
  • The notice will list the defects, risks, and remedial action required
  • The NHTSA has a SaferCar car-recall checker and reminder app that can notify you, if you are registered
  • You can look up your car's VIN on the NHTSA website to check recall information
  • If recalls are large enough, they make even make national news

Remember that second- or third-hand owners might not receive the mail, though, so be sure to keep an eye out on relevant forums and websites from time to time.

Safety Car Recall Volkswagen

What You’re Supposed to do if Your Vehicle is Recalled

Once you receive that recall notice, you need to take action:

  • Where to call: Call your brand's local dealership. Recall repairs must be conducted by official dealerships, who keep track of each car on their system. Make an appointment for yours to be repaired.
  • Where to go: Your dealership's service department handles the repair, so find out where your closest workshop is. Talk to them over email or the telephone before going there.
  • Which documents are needed? You don't need any documentation. Your car is simply identified by its 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN). If it is listed on the recall campaign, it is affected and must be repaired.
  • How long does it take? Sometimes the fix is electronic and a quick software update is all it takes. Sometimes, the engine or transmission has to be stripped to fix the fault. Ask your dealer to establish an accurate timeframe.
  • Are the repairs urgent? Some recalls require that you stop driving your vehicle immediately until the repair is done. All these details should appear on the recall notice.

What do Recalls Mean for Carmakers?

Serious reputational damage has been suffered by brands due to recalls. The Takata airbag recall affected Toyota, BMW, Honda, and others, negatively impacting their safety images. The "dieselgate" recall of VW Group cars in 2015 dented Volkswagen and Audi sales and landed them with huge fines. It also led to much stricter emissions laws and was the start of the demise of diesel passenger cars in the US.

The dieselgate recall is also a good example of how a serious recall can cause an automaker to rethink its entire gameplan. It is one of the main reasons that VW has been working to reinvent itself as an EV maker, and many other brands have also started making the move towards electrification.

Dieselgate Volkswagen
Airbag Recall Toyota

Always Check for Safety Recalls When Buying Used

The used car you want to buy may still have an open recall campaign against it. Visit the NHTSA's website or download the SaferCar app and look up the car's VIN to see if there's any unrepaired work on it due to safety recalls. The seller should provide the VIN; if it's a dealer, you can usually find it on the car's online listing. For any outstanding recall found on the car, contact the dealership to see if and how it can be fixed.


Recalls are not the end of the world and a repaired car should be perfectly safe to drive and as good as any other vehicle. Be sure that all recall work is done on your vehicle and retain proof to enable you to sell the vehicle more easily and provide the next buyer with peace of mind.


Can I continue to use my vehicle as normal before it has been repaired?

You will need to check the recall notice to determine the seriousness of the problem. With a minor issue, the vehicle should still be safe to drive, but some more serious concerns may warrant immediate cessation of use.

Are vehicle recalls done by the manufacturer or dealerships?

The manufacturer is supposed to issue the recall, but if it is lax in carrying out the duty, the NHTSA may step in and send out notices itself. The onus is then on the brand's dealerships to arrange for the repairs.

Will I be offered a loaner car while my car is being repaired?

Unfortunately, this is very unlikely. Due to the mass nature of recalls, it is not really feasible for dealers to offer this service, so you would be better off making your own arrangements rather than counting on their good graces.

Am I entitled to any compensation for a vehicle recall?

If you have been injured as a result of the problem, you may have a valid legal case against the automaker. However, the automaker is not required to compensate you for inconvenience or time away from work to get the problem fixed - they may wish to refund you for the vehicle itself, should the defect be major enough to warrant this, minus a reasonable amount for relevant depreciation.

Do I have to pay for the repairs if my car has been recalled?

Not usually. In the USA, all safety-recall repairs on cars up to 15 years old must be free. Older vehicles might still be covered; for example, the Takata airbag recall covered cars from 1995.

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