Vehicle Safety Recalls

We may be tempted to ignore manufacturer safety recalls for a variety of reasons, but missing a safety recall for a vehicle used by a parish or school can have deadly consequences.

Vehicle safety recalls are issued by manufacturers when a safety-related defect is discovered. It can happen at any time in the life cycle of a vehicle. Consider the serviceable old sedan donated to the parish when Mrs. Smith died. Everyone knows her son took meticulous care of it, and Mrs. Smith only drove it to church and the grocery store. But do you have any records? When you transferred the title, did you ever tell the auto manufacturer there was a new owner? How would you know about a recall? What if something is seriously wrong and no one knows until the bookkeeper loses control of the car on the way to the bank on Monday?

A recent study by the Carfax service found that one in four vehicles on the roads in the United States is operating with an unfixed safety recall. That amounts to more than 63 million active vehicles with safety recalls. Similar research by J.D. Power and Associates estimated the number at 45 million vehicles and acknowledged the total could be much higher because it is difficult to track compliance rates on older recalls.

Recalls cover all kinds of vehicles a parish, school, or organization might own, including cars, trucks, buses, vans, pick-ups and utility trailers. Issues that trigger a recall range from door stickers with incorrect tire inflation information to faulty ignition switches, bumpers that could detach without warning, and airbags that may explode in a crash. The bottom line: you may have a vehicle with an outstanding recall.

It’s foolish to ignore a recall notice, yet many people do. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) aims for 100% compliance, but automakers are pleased if 70% of vehicles covered by the recall come in for repairs, and most are not surprised when only 30% of owners respond.

Granted, there is a distinction between minor and major recalls, but they all have serious safety implications. As you can imagine, manufacturers are not likely to announce a recall for a cosmetic issue. And as more manufacturers share common parts among vehicle models, the small recall that “only” affected 10,000 vehicles in the past may now cover millions. This is big!

Why pass up a free repair?

Most either don’t know there is a recall, or life intervenes. The owners of older cars and ones passed along privately are harder to find and families often can’t justify being without their minivan for several days for something that doesn’t seem urgent.

How does a recall work?

Recalls are initiated when a vehicle or part doesn’t meet minimum Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and poses a safety risk for drivers, passengers, and other motorists. The manufacturer notifies the NHTSA and then sends a carefully prescribed notice to vehicle owners advising them to take the vehicle to a local dealership where the fix is usually made free of charge.

There are prudent steps you can take to make sure your vehicles are well maintained and to keep you aware of potential recalls. First, create and maintain an electronic or hardcopy database of the vehicles your parish or school owns or leases. At a minimum, the entry for each vehicle should include:

  • Description (make and model)
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is on both the state registration document and a tag at the base of the driver’s side windshield
  • When and where you purchased or leased it (or when it was donated and by whom)
  • Cost of purchase/terms of lease
  • Detailed maintenance record. THIS IS CRITICAL. If there is a problem with the vehicle, this record will prove you have maintained it responsibly and that the issue is not the result of owner neglect.
  • Where the vehicle is generally housed

Register used vehicles with the manufacturer so you will be contacted if there is a recall. Search the VIN of each vehicle at the NHTSA website to see if there are outstanding recalls on any of your vehicles. Also at the NHTSA website, you can sign up for NHTSA safety alerts for each vehicle. If you learn of a recall,  ACT PROMPTLY! Although recalls don’t expire, if you are in an accident involving a recalled part that has not been fixed, your insurance claim may be denied.

Call the dealer for an appointment; don’t show up unannounced. Large-scale recalls strain corporate and dealer resources and sometimes it is hard for manufacturers to get enough replacement parts.

Ultimately, you are responsible for the vehicles in your fleet. For the safety of your people and your own peace of mind, stay alert for recall information and take action when necessary.