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Recall Roll Call

With nearly 40 million cars on the road affected by a manufacturer recall, could one of them be yours?

By Jeff Rundles

With the average age of the 250 million cars and trucks on the road in the United States hovering around 11 years, it’s not surprising that some might need a little work. What is surprising is the level of issues: government sources estimate that one out of every six cars on the road today has an unrepaired problem subject to a mandatory recall. Recall Masters, a private firm that specializes in automotive recalls, estimates that as many as 555,000 of those recalled cars are still on metro Denver roads, still unrepaired.

Recalling cars to fix defects dates back to 1966 with the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which first gave the federal government the power to order manufacturers to recall vehicles and fix safety issues. Since that time nearly 400 million cars sold in the American market have been recalled, and there has been further legislation enacted several times in Congress to force the often reluctant car manufacturers to be more forthcoming about defects and safety issues, and more prompt in responding.

To be fair, most recalls are for relatively minor problems, like software glitches, or faulty latches that haven’t actually resulted in accidents or injuries. But there are a few famous and massive recalls that came about as a result of injuries and fatalities.

Recently in the headlines: the ongoing recall of 42 million vehicles because of the failure of Takata airbags. According to reports, when the airbags deployed in an accident, some of them did so explosively, resulting in 11 deaths and as many as 180 injuries in the U.S. Just to give some perspective on how long it takes sometimes for such a recall to be ordered, the New York Times first revealed that Takata knew about dangerous defects in its airbags in late 2014, followed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordering a nationwide vehicle recall in November, 2014; the affected vehicles, however, went back to the 2002 through 2015 model years, and there may not be enough airbags to make all of the replacements until 2019.

While the Takata recall involved airbags installed in 19 different auto manufacturers, the truth is that every auto manufacturer selling cars in the American market has recalled cars to fix defects—often after denying for years that a problem existed. General Motors in the last several years had to recall 3.36 million vehicles going back to early 2000s model years to replace ignition keys; apparently heavy keychains could cause the cars to move out of the “run” mode, affecting power steering, power brakes and disabling air bags. GM was forced to pay significant fines and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate injured victims. Likewise, Toyota initially balked but then was forced to recall millions of its vehicles for a faulty accelerator pedal that could cause sudden and unintended acceleration. Toyota was fined $1.2 billion by the U.S. government—the largest consumer protection penalty ever at the time—after it determined that Toyota lied about the problem. In addition, the Japanese automaker faces even more liability in nearly 400 wrongful-death and personal injury lawsuits.

One of the biggest problems, however, is that as many as 35 percent of owners with recalled cars never take action to fix the defects even after they have been notified of a recall affecting their vehicle. Sometimes this is because the original owner of the car has long since sold it, so finding the new owner is a problem. And some owners, who’ve never had a problem with their car, just keep on driving. The government, however, wants manufacturers to be more diligent in finding recalled cars and their owners, and in early 2014 began requiring manufacturers to send letters to affected car owners with a bright red label on the envelope stating “IMPORTANT SAFETY RECALL INFORMATION” and “Issued in Accordance With Federal Law.”

With so many cars under mandatory recalls to fix potential safety issues, and with virtually every make and model under scrutiny at some time going back for decades, in all likelihood everyone has or knows someone who has a vehicle under recall—many of whom may not know it. Fortunately, the federal government and organizations like RecallMasters offer easy online resources that state whether your car is under recall and what to do if it is. There is even recall news and information about children’s car seats and automobile tires. Visit safercar.gov or motorsafety.org, enter the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) and in seconds the information will be provided. You can even find out if a previous owner had the vehicle fixed—or not.

Manufacturers are required to make the necessary repairs for free, even on older vehicles, so better to be safe rather than sorry.

Recalls By the Numbers

Recalled cars are, by nature, those that have spent enough time on the road to garner the complaints that lead to a recall. Here are the top 10 automakers for recalls in 2014 (the latest complete data available), their number of recalls, and the number of vehicles recalled.

General Motors Co.: 78 recalls including 26,834,837 vehicles

Honda Motor Co.: 18 recalls including 9,038,350 vehicles

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S.: 37 recalls including 8,807,000 vehicles

Toyota Motor Co.: 23 recalls including 5,916,720 vehicles

Ford Motor Co.: 38 recalls including 4,783,909 vehicles

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Nissan Motor Co.: 17 recalls including 1,730,287 vehicles

Hyundai Motor Co.: 10 recalls including 1,583,641 vehicles

Volkswagen AG: 11 recalls including 926,849 vehicles

BMW AG: 17 recalls including 906,317 vehicles

Mazda Motor Co.: 10 recalls including 703,288 vehicles