How Do Vehicle Recalls Work and Why are They Important?

Lever & Ecker, PLLC January 8, 2018 Car Accidents

In the last year, you have most likely seen a story involving a vehicle recall. These occur when an automaker admits that one of their vehicles has a fundamental flaw and sets out to solve the issue. Although vehicle recalls are nothing new, the modern news cycle has put these recalls in the national spotlight as we’ve never seen before. Because vehicle recalls are now at the forefront of our minds, here is how they work.

Automakers Will Usually Issue a Recall First

The process is usually pretty simple: an automaker finds an issue with a vehicle, they report this issue, they mail out customer letters, and the cars get fixed. According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, in the last ten years, automakers have recalled nearly 83 million vehicles on their own, and the NHTSA has recalled 86 million.

Vehicle manufacturers are required by law to file Early Warning Reports that reveal all known claims of property damages, death, injury, warranty claims, owner complaints, and internal studies for all old and new models. If an automaker decides that they are going to issue a recall, they are required to inform the NHTSA within five business days of making their decision. Along with this notice, automakers are required to outline a detailed timeline of how the defect was found, and how they plan to fix it. They will then have 60 days to mail owners of that specific model notice of the recall.

How Does the NHTSA Issue a Recall?

There are three steps that the NHTSA will usually take in the process of a vehicle recall. These include:

Researching the Issue

Believe it or not, the NHTSA receives over 10,000 complaints from car owners each year on the website These complaints are usually posted to a bulletin on the website for public consumption. Here, consumers can read and compare detailed complaints from other car owners for any model of car from any year. At this point, the Office of Defects Investigation will examine these bulletins, track foreign recalls, examine insurance data, and review federal crash data to gather more information. The NHTSA will also examine petitions that have been sent in from consumers who believe that an investigation should be opened.

Initial Evaluations

While trends and patterns of defects are what start an investigation, a single complaint can have a tremendous effect in kickstarting a recall. This is what is known as a “preliminary evaluation.” In this step of the process, the NHTSA will request that the automaker turn over all available information regarding the alleged defect. This process could take anywhere from months, to years due to the amount of work it entails.

Engineering Analysis

When the NHTSA admits that a problem with a vehicle is possible, it will then pursue more information from the automaker. This includes engineering studies and quality checks, both of which adds much-needed detail to a recall file.


If a vehicle manufacturer does not admit there is a problem in the midst of mounting evidence against them, the NHTSA’s investigator on the case will present the evidence to a review board who will make a decision. If the agency rules that there is a problem after review, a recall is issued and the process begins.

If the NHTSA finds that an automaker failed to report a defect promptly during the recall, a fine of $17.35 million dollars can be issued. This is often avoided by manufacturers who declare that they were unaware of an issue until a certain date.

The catch in all of this is that the NHTSA has no real legal authority whatsoever. Although it rarely happens, when a recall is staged, the NHTSA will rely on the help of US attorneys to make it a legal issue in court. There are cases of car manufacturers vehemently denying allegations of defects until public outrage and social proof forces them to recall all affected vehicles.

Things You Should Know

  • You can search this webpage for information on vehicle recall by using the vehicle VIN.
  • If you are experiencing an issue with your vehicle and your dealer won’t address or fix it, it is worth sending a complaint to the NHTSA. The more detail that you can provide in your complaint, the more likely it is that your complaint will match up with others in the NHTSA database. You can contribute to a preliminary investigation.

New York Car Accident Lawyer

If you have been in a car accident or injured due to a vehicle defect in New York, contact Lever & Ecker, PLLC right away. We will take your personal injury case very personally, and do all we can to ensure that you receive compensation for your losses.

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