Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a story we published on June 11, 2014, in the midst of General Motors’ recall of nearly 30 million cars.
There are more than seven million vehicles on US roads today equipped with airbags, made by the Takata Corporation, that may have faulty propellants, and have the potential to fire shrapnel into passengers when they inflate. Those cars, including models from Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, are being recalled.
This is a particularly terrifying problem: It makes a tool designed to save lives into one that’s masterful at taking them instead. The problem has been linked to at least two deaths in the US, according to The New York Times. A House committee has promised an investigation, and politicians have criticized the NHTSA’s decision to focus action first on regions with high humidity, which seems to make the defect more likely.
Recalls like this one—and the massive General Motors recall of nearly 30 million cars earlier this year—are marked by deadly crashes, furious consumers, and publicity-seeking politicians. But the reality is, most recalls don’t stem from accidents and are settled pretty easily.
Cars have thousands of parts and things go wrong all the time—this month alone, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has announced dozens of recalls, most of them quite minor. There are rules in place to put things right. Here’s how that process works.
Drivers who find something wrong with their car can report it to NHSTA, whose technical experts take a look. If the agency receives enough reports (there’s no fixed number) about a particular problem, it takes action. That involves ordering the automaker to fix the problem safely, effectively, and for free.
Most recalls are spearheaded by automakers, which discover problems via customers, dealers, lawsuits, and their own inspections. Those defects don’t always affect safety. Sometimes a car just isn’t quite up to code for federal regulations or the automaker’s quality standards.
When an automaker initiates a recall, it’s required to notify NHTSA and file a public report airing all the dirty details, including how it discovered the problem, who is affected, and how it plans to fix things. That last bit usually means notifying customers and asking them bring their cars to dealerships for a free repair.
Because federal guidelines change slowly and old people still own cars, automakers must send those notifications as letters—in the mail!—to the registered owners of affected automobiles, then follow up with a postcard every three months for a year and a half to remind them to take care of the issue. The automaker can also send notifications through its cars’ OnStar vehicle diagnostics system and via a monthly “state-of-the-car” email that customers can choose to receive. If things are bad, dealerships and customer service folks may call owners to push them to come in for repairs.
Problem is, those letters are easily and often ignored, or may never reach the current owner—especially if the car’s changed hands multiple times since it was first sold. And that’s what worries the NHTSA in this case. “Responding to these recalls, whether old or new, is essential to personal safety,” says NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman. “And it will help aid our ongoing investigation into Takata airbags.”
If you’re worried in the meantime, you can see the list of affected vehicles here, or be proactive and see if you need to get your car to the dealer car here.
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