car safety defects and recalls

A safety recall on your car can seem like a minor inconvenience, especially if your car's running smoothly. But there's typically a good reason to get the defective part fixed as soon as you can. Here you'll find info on vehicle defects and recalls, including what to do if you suspect your car has a safety defect and why it's important to get it repaired.

the purpose of recalls

This is fairly obvious: according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), getting unsafe cars and trucks off the road is key to the safety of all drivers. To achieve this goal, the NHTSA ensures that manufacturers recall vehicles that have safety defects or don't meet federal safety standards.

Recalls are relatively common. The NHTSA asserts that since 1966, manufacturers have recalled more than 390 million vehicles, 46 million tires, 66 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment, and 42 million child safety seats in order to correct safety defects. Even if only a fraction of these recalls actually resulted in saving lives, the sheer volume is staggering. And it still amounts to a whole lot of lives saved and crashes avoided.

how to find (or start) a recall

Searching for recalls

To find out if your car has an existing recall, search for its make and model at You can also use the Investigations Search Engine to research current and past NHTSA investigations.

Reporting defects

If you notice a defect, you can report your findings to The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), which is a department within the NHTSA. The ODI conducts investigations of customer defect complaints. If they determine the defect is valid, the recall process begins.

The danger of ignoring a recall

Once you're notified of a recall, it's up to you to bring your car in for repair. However, not fixing the faulty part means you're driving around with a defective and possibly dangerous component — a component which could fail and cause a car accident. If this happens, your insurer could deny your claim based on negligence.

safety defects that lead to recalls

What is a safety-related defect? It's a problem that:

  • Poses a risk to your safety and others in the car or on the road
  • Exists in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or equipment of the same type and manufacture

Some examples of vehicle safety defects:

  • Broken steering components that can cause loss of vehicle control
  • Fuel system component problems
  • Issues with accelerator controls, such as braking or sticking
  • Wheels that are susceptible to cracking or breaking
  • Engine cooling fan blade issues
  • Windshield wipers that fail to operate properly
  • Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use of the vehicle
  • Collapsing car ramps or jacks
  • Wiring system problems
  • Non-working air bags or ones that deploy when they're not supposed to

types of recalls

There are 2 different types of recalls:

The manufacturer tells you

In these cases, the NHTSA targets a vehicle's safety issue and requires the manufacturer to send recall notifications to all registered owners by mail. In this letter, the manufacturer must explain:

  • All the potential safety hazards presented by the defect
  • How to get the problem corrected (at no charge)
  • When the fix will be available
  • How long the repair will take
  • Who to contact

You alert the authorities and they order a recall

If you think your car has a dangerous safety issue, contact the NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236 or report it online at

The NHTSA's technical staff analyzes reported complaints, and if they discover a trend of an alleged safety flaw for a specific vehicle, they open an investigation. If they confirm the defect, they'll order the manufacturer to recall the problem vehicles.


Generally, automakers repair the defective part(s) at no cost to you. However, some limitations exist based on the age of the vehicle.

To qualify for a free repair, your vehicle can't be more than 10 years old when the defect is found. The age of the vehicle is calculated from the date of sale to the first buyer. If you're notified of a defect on a vehicle that's more than 10 years old, you'll be responsible for the needed repairs. The logic here, in part, is that the car operated safely for a long-enough time to suggest the safety issue isn't too severe.

if you miss out on a recall and crash because of it

You may be able to take legal action if you didn't know about a recall. We suggest consulting a lawyer, state attorney general, or your local district attorney's office to determine your state-specific legal remedy.

If you're an Esurance policyholder and have questions regarding recalls and defects and the impact they can have on your auto insurance, call us at 1-800-ESURANCE (1-800-378-7262) to see how we can help.

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