The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency authorized to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety-related defects (49 USC §301). Since NHTSA’s inception in 1966, more than 299 million vehicles of all types, 43 million tires, and 84 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment (including child seats) have been recalled to correct safety defects. Vehicle manufacturers initiated some of these recalls. Others have come about after NHTSA investigation or through court action, instigated by the agency.
A safety defect is defined as a problem with a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment that poses a risk to motor vehicle safety. Moreover, it must be common to a group of vehicles of the same manufacture or design, or to items of equipment of the same type and manufacture. If a manufacturer identifies a safety defect, the manufacturer notifies NHTSA, as well as vehicle or equipment owners, dealers, and distributors. The manufacturer must then fix the problem, typically without charge to vehicle owners. NHTSA assesses the adequacy of the manufacturers’ corrective action and makes sure manufacturers comply with all statutory requirements.
Vehicle owners should report possible auto safety issues to NHTSA. The combined effect of a number of similar complaints can trigger an investigation into the alleged safety defect and ultimately lead to a recall. However, there is no set number of complaints an agency must receive before launching an investigation; NHTSA reviews every report of an alleged safety issue. A report to NHTSA can be made three ways: through the agency’s toll-free telephone hotline, by mail, or via the Internet. Consumers are asked to supply specific information necessary for NHTSA staff to evaluate the problem. The information is entered into NHTSA’s database and a copy is forwarded to agency staff for evaluation. The agency assesses the information individually, as well as in combination with other information in its database. The information is organized according to vehicle make, model, model year, manufacturer, and the affected part, assembly or system. NHTSA staff monitor such complaints to determine whether a pattern emerges that may indicate potential safety-related problems on any specific vehicle, tires, or equipment.
The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) within NHTSA is responsible for investigating potential safety defects. The investigative process consists of four parts:
- Screening. ODI determines whether to open an investigation. During this phase, ODI will conduct a preliminary review of consumer complaints and other information related to the alleged defect.
- Petition Analysis. ODI processes petitions for defect investigations during petition analysis.
- Investigation. ODI conducts an investigation of the alleged defect(s).
- Recall Management. Assuming the investigation leads to a recall, ODI will monitor the overall adequacy of safety recalls and the safety-relatedness of service bulletins.
In most cases, manufacturers discover safety defects through their own testing procedures, and make voluntary recalls to remedy the defects without NHTSA involvement. Federal law requires manufacturers to report the findings that safety defects exist in their product, and to take appropriate action to fix the defects. As some vehicles age, however, certain design and performance problems may occur. These problems often lead to complaints to NHTSA by vehicle owners. These consumer complaints can form the basis for a defect investigation, possibly leading to a recall.
After the NHTSA determines a safety defect or other noncompliance issue exists, manufacturers are given a reasonable time to notify, by first-class mail, all registered owners and purchasers of the affected vehicles. (State motor vehicle offices provide the names of vehicle owners.) Manufacturers must inform vehicle owners of the safety problem and provide an evaluation of its risk to the vehicle’s safety. The letter must also instruct consumers on the following details:
- How to get the problem corrected
- That corrections are to be made at no charge
- When the remedy will be available
- How long the remedy will take to perform
- Who to contact if there are difficulties in obtaining the free recall work
Once NHTSA has made a defect determination, the manufacturer has three options to correct the defect: repair, replace, or refund the product. The circumstances of the defect and the overall cost of remedying the problem will determine the manufacturer’s course of action. In the case of tires and equipment, the manufacturer can either repair or replace, but need not refund the tires or equipment. If a vehicle owner makes repairs before a recall is announced, manufacturers typically must still provide reimbursement to owners for costs incurred to remedy the defect.
A consumer’s right to take advantage of a recall is limited by the age of the vehicle. In order to be eligible for free repairs, refund, or replacement, the vehicle must be less than 10 years old on the date the defect or noncompliance is determined. The age of the vehicle is based on the date it was sold to the first purchaser.
If a manufacturer challenges NHTSA’s recall in court; the manufacturer is not required to perform any repairs while the case is pending. Owners who take a vehicle in for repairs after NHTSA’s decision to order a recall, but before the case is finally decided, will not be reimbursed if the court finds in favor of the manufacturer. If the court rules against the manufacturer, owners may be entitled to reimbursement upon proof that the repairs were made.
Recall remedies do not foreclose other legal remedies; recalls are an additional layer of consumer protection. Persons who have been injured due to a safety-related defect may still bring suit against the manufacturer.