Approximately 42,000 lives are lost annually on our Nation’s highways. Traffic
crashes are the primary cause of debilitating injuries in the United States and
the number one killer of Americans under the age of 34. In addition to
staggering emotional costs, the annual economic loss to society because of these
crashes, in terms of worker productivity, medical costs, insurance costs, etc.,
is estimated at more than $150 billion. Clearly, there is a need for dramatic
improvement in motor vehicle safety. Getting unsafe vehicles off the road is
integral to improving safety and saving lives.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (originally enacted in 1966
and now recodified as 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301) gives the Department of
Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the
authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to
recall vehicles that have safety-related defects or do not meet Federal safety
standards. Since then, more than 390 million cars, trucks, buses, recreational
vehicles, motorcycles, and mopeds, as well as 46 million tires, 66 million
pieces of motor vehicle equipment, and 42 million child safety seats have been
recalled to correct safety defects.
Manufacturers voluntarily initiate many of these recalls, while others are
either influenced by NHTSA investigations or ordered by NHTSA via the courts. If
a safety defect is discovered, the manufacturer must notify NHTSA, as well as
vehicle or equipment owners, dealers, and distributors. The manufacturer is then
required to remedy the problem at no charge to the owner. NHTSA is responsible
for monitoring the manufacturer’s corrective action to ensure successful
completion of the recall campaign.
The purpose of this Motor Vehicle Safety Defects and Recalls Booklet is to
answer the most commonly asked questions about how and why recall campaigns are
initiated, and to inform consumers of their rights and responsibilities when a
vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment is recalled. In these pages, you’ll
discover how to report a safety-related problem to NHTSA, as well as how
participation by citizens like you helps to keep motor vehicles as safe as
possible. See the following section for comprehensive answers to some of the
most frequently asked questions (FAQs) NHTSA receives on recalls.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is a recall necessary?
When a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment (including tires) does
not comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.
When there is a safety-related defect in the vehicle or equipment.
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards set minimum performance requirements for
those parts of the vehicle that most affect its safe operation (brakes, tires,
lighting) or that protect drivers and passengers from death or serious injury in
the event of a crash (air bags, safety belts, child restraints, energy absorbing
steering columns, motorcycle helmets). These Federal Standards are applicable to
all vehicles and vehicle-related equipment manufactured or imported for sale in
the United States (including U.S. territories) and certified for use on public
roads and highways.
What Is a safety-related defect?
The United States Code for Motor Vehicle Safety (Title 49, Chapter 301) defines
motor vehicle safety as “the performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle
equipment in a way that protects the public against unreasonable risk of
accidents occurring because of the design, construction, or performance of a
motor vehicle, and against unreasonable risk of death or injury in an accident,
and includes nonoperational safety of a motor vehicle.” A defect includes “any
defect in performance, construction, a component, or material of a motor vehicle
or motor vehicle equipment.” Generally, a safety defect is defined as a problem
that exists in a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment that:
- poses an risk to motor vehicle safety, and
- may exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or items of
equipment of the same type and manufacture.
Examples of defects considered safety-related
- Steering components that break suddenly causing partial or complete loss of
- Problems with fuel system components, particularly in their susceptibility to
crash damage, that result in leakage of fuel and possibly cause vehicle fires.
- Accelerator controls that may break or stick.
- Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control.
- Engine cooling fan blades that break unexpectedly causing injury to persons
working on a vehicle.
- Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate properly.
- Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use.
- Critical vehicle components that break, fall apart, or separate from the
vehicle, causing potential loss of vehicle control or injury to persons inside
or outside the vehicle.
- Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting.
- Car ramps or jacks that may collapse and cause injury to someone working on a
- Air bags that deploy under conditions for which they are not intended to deploy.
- Child safety seats that contain defective safety belts, buckles, or components
that create a risk of injury, not only in a vehicle crash but also in
non-operational safety of a motor vehicle.
Examples of defects NOT considered safety-related:
- Air conditioners and radios that do not operate properly.
- Ordinary wear of equipment that has to be inspected, maintained and replaced
periodically. Such equipment includes shock absorbers, batteries, brake pads and
shoes, and exhaust systems.
- Nonstructural or body panel rust.
- Quality of paint or cosmetic blemishes.
- Excessive oil consumption.
How can I report a safety problem to NHTSA?
If you think your vehicle or equipment may have a safety defect, reporting it to
NHTSA is an important first step to take to get the situation remedied and make
our roads safer. If the agency receives similar reports from a number of people
about the same product, this could indicate that a safety-related defect may
exist that would warrant the opening of an investigation. In order to make it
convenient for consumers to report any suspected safety defects to NHTSA, the
agency offers three ways to file such complaints.
Vehicle Safety Hotline
NHTSA operates the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Vehicle Safety
Hotline telephone service to collect accurate and timely information from
consumers on vehicle safety problems. You can call 1-888-327-4236 or
1-800-424-9393 toll free from anywhere in the United States, Puerto Rico, and
the Virgin Islands to register complaints or receive recall information about a
vehicle. The Hotline also has Spanish-speaking representatives and offers a
dedicated number, 1-800-424-9153, for use by persons with hearing impairments.
When you call the Hotline to report a vehicle-related safety issue, you will be
asked to provide certain critical information that agency technical staff needs
to evaluate the problem. The information you provide is filed on a Vehicle
Owner’s Questionnaire (VOQ), entered into the agency’s consumer-complaint
database, and forwarded to NHTSA technical staff for evaluation.
VOQs filed through the Hotline will be mailed to you for verification of data.
In addition, you will receive an explanation of how your report will be used, as
well as a request for written authorization allowing NHTSA to provide your
personal identifiers (e.g., name, address and telephone number) to the
manufacturer of the alleged defective product you own. Note that you are not
required to provide such authorization. However, sometimes sharing this
information with the manufacturer can help facilitate the recall process.
You can also report a vehicle safety issue to NHTSA online at our vehicle safety
Web site: www.safercar.gov. Select “File a Complaint” within the Defects and
Recalls section of the home page. The information you submit via the Web site is
recorded in VOQ format, entered into our consumer complaint database, and
provided to our technical staff for evaluation.
When you fill out a VOQ online, you will be given the option of checking a box
to authorize or not authorize the release of your personal identifiers to the
manufacturer of the alleged defective product you own. Again, while you are not
required to provide such authorization, doing so can sometimes help facilitate
the recall process.
To report a safety complaint to NHTSA by mail, send your letter to:
U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Office of Defects Investigation (NVS-210)
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20590
How will my report be used?
Information you provide on the questionnaire is entered into the NHTSA consumer
complaint automated database, and catalogued according to vehicle make, model,
model year, manufacturer, and the affected part, assembly, or system. These
reports, with the consumer’s personal identifiers removed, are listed on
www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems and updated weekly. Citizen and consumer reports
help NHTSA and manufacturers to determine if a safety recall is warranted, and
also provide motorists with valuable information about potential safety problems
currently under review.
Will I be contacted?
In some cases, an investigator from the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI)
may call to clarify or verify information from your report. Unfortunately, the
large volume of reports received by the agency does not permit a return call for
each report filed. Questions about whether your concern involves an
investigation or recall are best answered by contacting the DOT Vehicle Safety
Hotline or by viewing our Web site.
NHTSA technical staff conducts a continuous analysis of these reports to
determine whether an unusual number of complaints of potential safety-related
problems have been received on any specific line of vehicles, tires, or
equipment (e.g., child safety seats, jacks, trailer hitches, etc.). The number
of reported complaints and the severity of the consequences are carefully
reviewed by technical staff and measured against the number of vehicles (or
items of equipment) manufactured, and how many years the vehicles or equipment
have been in service.
This ongoing evaluation process allows NHTSA technical staff to determine
whether complaints represent isolated reports or a trend. If a trend is
suspected and a problem has a potential for causing a risk to safety, the agency
will open an investigation for more detailed analysis of the problem.
How many reports must be filed before NHTSA investigates an issue?
There is no established number. Agency technical experts review each and every
call, letter, and online report of an alleged safety problem filed with NHTSA.
Although NHTSA has no jurisdiction over defects that are not safety-related, it
does review each report that suggests a potential safety defect involving groups
of motor vehicles or vehicle equipment.
How does NHTSA conduct an investigation?
The agency's Office of Defects Investigation investigative process consists of
Screening -- A preliminary review of consumer complaints and other information
related to alleged defects to decide whether to open an investigation
Petition Analysis -- An analysis of any petitions calling for defect
investigations and/or reviews of safety-related recalls
Investigation -- The investigation of alleged safety defects
Recall Management -- Investigation of the effectiveness of safety recalls.
Under the screening process, available information – including but not limited
to Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaires (submitted through the Vehicle Safety Hotline,
Internet or U.S. Mail), e-mail, additional letters, anonymous reports, and
manufacturer-submitted information – is reviewed by the Defects Assessment
Division (DAD). DAD also reviews incoming service bulletins and other documents
prepared by the manufacturers to identify foreign safety recalls, customer
satisfaction campaigns, consumer advisories, and similar campaigns that should
have been conducted as safety recalls in the United States. If DAD determines
the available information indicates a safety-related trend or that a
catastrophic failure is developing, this information is presented to a panel of
ODI staff for a recommendation on whether to open a safety defect investigation.
2. Petition Analyses:
Any person may submit a petition requesting NHTSA to open an investigation into
an alleged safety defect. After conducting a technical analysis of such a
petition, ODI informs the petitioner whether it has been granted or denied. If
the petition is granted, a defect investigation is opened. If the petition is
denied, the reasons for the denial are published in the Federal Register.
Similarly, a person may submit a petition requesting NHTSA to hold a hearing on
whether a manufacturer has reasonably met its obligation to notify and/or remedy
a safety defect or noncompliance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard.
If the petition is granted, a hearing is held to assess the matter and decide
what corrective action should be taken. If the petition is denied, the reasons
for the denial are published in the Federal Register.
Investigations are conducted in two phases: the Preliminary Evaluation and the
Preliminary Evaluation (PE)
Most PEs are opened on the basis of information submitted by DAD, but they may
be opened on the basis of other information as well. During the PE phase, ODI
obtains information from the manufacturer (including, but not limited to, data
on complaints, crashes, injuries, warranty claims, modifications, and part
sales) and determines whether further analysis is warranted. At this stage, the
manufacturer has an opportunity to present its views regarding the alleged
defect. PEs are generally resolved within four months from the date they are
opened. They are either closed on the basis that further investigation is not
warranted, or because the manufacturer has decided to conduct a recall. In the
event that ODI believes further analysis is warranted, the PE is upgraded to an
Engineering Analysis (EA)
During an EA, ODI conducts a more detailed and complete analysis of the
character and scope of the alleged defect. The EA builds on information
collected during the PE and supplements it with appropriate inspections, tests,
surveys, and additional information obtained from the manufacturer and
suppliers. ODI attempts to resolve all EAs within one year from the date they
are opened, but some complex investigations require more time. At the conclusion
of the EA, the investigation may be closed if the manufacturer has notified the
agency that it will conduct a safety recall or if the agency has not identified
a safety-related defect. However, if ODI believes that the data developed
indicates that a safety-related defect exists, the ODI investigator prepares a
briefing to be presented to a panel of experts from throughout the agency for
peer review. If the agency panel concurs with ODI’s recommendation that a recall
should be conducted, ODI notifies the manufacturer of the panel’s concurrence
and may, if appropriate, provide a final opportunity for the manufacturer to
present new analysis or data. ODI then sends a Recall Request Letter to the
4. Recall Management:
The Recall Management Division (RMD) maintains the administrative records for
all safety recalls, and monitors these recalls to ensure that the scope is
appropriate, and that the recall completion rate and remedy are adequate.
NHTSA’s monitoring of recall performance may lead to the opening of a recall
investigation if the facts appear to indicate a problem with the recall adequacy
or execution. A recall investigation can result in expanding the scope of
previously announced recalls, or in the adjustment of existing recall remedies.
What happens when NHTSA determines a safety defect exists?
If the manufacturer declines to conduct a recall in response to the Recall
Request Letter, the Associate Administrator for Enforcement may issue an Initial
Decision that a safety-related defect exists. An Initial Decision will be
followed by a Public Meeting, at which the manufacturer and interested members
of the public can present information and arguments on the issue. Prior to the
Public Meeting, the manufacturer is sent copies of all information on which the
Government’s decision is based. A copy of the file is also made available for
public inspection in the agency’s Technical Information Services (TIS) Office.
During the meeting itself, the manufacturer may attempt to refute the
Government’s evidence in addition to presenting new information. Public interest
groups, other manufacturers, trade associations, and consumers may also present
information that will be considered and evaluated by NHTSA’s Administrator in
making a final decision on whether a safety-related defect exists. The entire
investigative record is then presented to NHTSA’s Administrator, who may issue a
Final Decision that a safety defect exists and order the manufacturer to conduct
If NHTSA makes a final decision, can the manufacturer challenge that decision?
Yes. Once the agency has made a final decision of a safety-related defect and
ordered a manufacturer to recall, the manufacturer may challenge that order in a
Federal District Court.
The agency can also go to court to compel a manufacturer to comply with its
order. Once a case is in court, the burden of proof lies with the agency. In
other words, the agency’s evidence that a defect exists and that it is
safety-related must be sufficient in the opinion of the court to outweigh
evidence to the contrary presented by the manufacturer.
While the case is in the courts, however, the manufacturer may be required to
notify consumers by letter that the agency did make a final decision of a safety
defect, but that the manufacturer is contesting the decision.
Do manufacturers ever initiate recalls without a government order?
Yes. Most decisions to conduct a recall and remedy a safety defect are made
voluntarily by manufacturers prior to any involvement by NHTSA. Through their
own tests, inspection procedures, and information-gathering systems,
manufacturers often discover that a safety defect exists or that the
requirements of a Federal safety standard have not been met. The manufacturer is
obligated to report such findings to the Government and take appropriate action
to correct the problem. However, as vehicles age with use, certain design and
performance problems may occur that prompt vehicle owners to file complaints
with NHTSA. The many reports received by the public form the basis for NHTSA’s
defect investigations, which often result in significant safety recalls.
How will I be notified if a recall is ordered or initiated?
Within a reasonable time after the determination of a safety defect or
noncompliance, manufacturers must notify, by first-class mail, all registered
owners and purchasers of the affected vehicles of the existence of the problem
and give an evaluation of its risk to motor vehicle safety. The manufacturer
must explain to consumers the potential safety hazards presented by the problem.
Names of vehicle owners are obtained from State motor vehicle offices. The
letter must also instruct consumers on how to get the problem corrected, remind
them that corrections are to be made at no charge, inform them when the remedy
will be available, how long the remedy will take to perform, and whom to contact
if there is a problem in obtaining the free recall work. If you do not receive a
letter of notification from the vehicle manufacturer but think that your vehicle
might be involved in a recall campaign, call the Vehicle Safety Hotline at
888-327-4236 or 800-424-9393, visit the NHTSA www.safercar.gov Web site, or
contact the manufacturer or your dealer.
Manufacturers of motor vehicle equipment, particularly tires and child safety
seats, maintain lists of owners who have registered their products with the
manufacturer. When product or equipment recalls are initiated, the manufacturer
uses these lists to directly notify owners. Product and equipment manufacturers
may also be required to notify the public of recalls through a variety of
additional methods (e.g., advertisements, point-of-purchase posters, etc.) to
ensure that as many owners as possible are aware of the recalls. If you are
unsure whether your tire or child safety seats is the subject of a recall, you
may contact the manufacturer, call the Vehicle Safety Hotline, or log onto
www.safercar.gov and click on “Check for Recalls."
How are problems with recalled vehicles or equipment remedied?
Once a safety-defect determination is made, the law gives the manufacturer three
options for correcting the defect – repair, replacement, or refund. In the case
of a vehicle recall, the manufacturer may choose to repair the vehicle at no
charge; replace the vehicle with an identical or similar vehicle; or refund the
purchase price in full, minus a reasonable allowance for depreciation. In the
case of equipment, including tires and child safety seats, the manufacturer may
either repair or replace the affected equipment at no charge to the consumer.
If I pay for needed repairs before a recall is ordered, am I entitled to
Yes, under certain conditions. Manufacturers are required to provide
reimbursement for certain costs incurred by owners to remedy safety defect
conditions prior to a recall. Vehicle manufacturers are required to reimburse
owners for costs incurred to remedy a defect based on either (1) the date NHTSA
opens its Engineering Analysis, or (2) one year prior to the manufacturer’s
notification of a defect to NHTSA, whichever is earlier. The closing date of
eligibility for reimbursement of repair of a motor vehicle is 10 days after the
manufacturer mails the last of the owner notices informing owners of a safety
defect recall and cost-free remedy. For replacement of equipment, the closing
date is either the same as for motor vehicles or 30 days after the
manufacturer’s closing of its efforts to provide public notice of the existence
of a defect, whichever is later. Documentation of the costs is required for
reimbursement. While the current reimbursement policy is a relatively new
requirement, manufacturers have in the past often voluntarily agreed to absorb
such costs, provided customers could prove the pre-recall repairs remedied the
defect in question.
Are there any limitations on my right to have a recalled vehicle remedied at no
Yes. There is a limitation based on the age of the vehicle. In order to be
eligible for a free remedy, the vehicle cannot be more than 10 years old on the
date the defect or noncompliance is determined. Under the law, the age of the
vehicle is calculated from the date of sale to the first purchaser. For example,
if a defect is found in 2003 and a recall ordered, manufacturers are required to
make the correction available at no charge only for vehicles purchased new in
1994 through 2003. However, consumers should realize that even though
manufacturers are not obligated to remedy safety defects in older cars, a safety
problem might still exist. If you receive notification of a defect on a vehicle
older than 10 years, take the responsibility to have your car repaired at your
own expense – and eliminate unnecessary safety risks.
Also, if the manufacturer challenges the agency’s final decision of a safety
defect, there is no obligation for the manufacturer to remedy the defect while
the case is in court. If you decide to have your vehicle remedied at your own
expense while the case is pending and the court upholds NHTSA’s final decision,
you may be entitled to reimbursement. (Be sure to save all receipts and
paperwork so that you can prove the repairs were made.) However, if the court
ultimately rules the defect is not safety related, Federal law does not require
that the manufacturer reimburse you for the repair work
What about tire recalls?
The law requires tire manufacturers to repair or replace at no cost to the
consumer only those tires purchased within five years of the defect or
noncompliance determination. Furthermore, in order to obtain free replacement or
repair of a recalled tire, consumers must bring the tire to the dealer within 60
days of receiving the recall notification letter from the manufacturer. If
replacements are not available when you present your recalled tires, obtain a
written acknowledgment from the dealer, and keep it until the dealer notifies
you that there are more tires in stock.
What if I'm denied the right to have a recalled vehicle remedied at no charge?
If a dealer refuses to repair your vehicle in accordance with the recall letter
you received from the manufacturer, you should immediately notify the
manufacturer. In most cases, contractual agreements between a manufacturer and
its dealers require all dealers to honor the recall and remedy defects at no
extra charge – regardless of where the vehicle or equipment was originally
Under the law, if a vehicle recall has been initiated, consumers are entitled to
the remedy without charge and within a reasonable time. In most cases, there
will be a time lag between the date of the manufacturer’s decision that a recall
is warranted or the agency’s final decision, and the date the remedy is
available to consumers.
This time is provided to allow manufacturers to identify owners of vehicles or
equipment included in the recall, develop remedial procedures, instruct dealers
on how to repair the defect, distribute the parts necessary for repair or
replacement to the dealerships, and send letters to consumers informing them how
the recall campaign will be conducted. A dealer is not required by law to remedy
a defect in a vehicle brought in for repair before this date.
Although consumers demanding immediate correction may feel they are not
receiving satisfactory resolution of the problem, there is no legal recourse
available at this stage – patience is the only alternative. In instances where a
manufacturer needs extended time to develop a remedy, the agency may require the
manufacturer to send an interim notice to consumers that contains any short-term
actions that the consumer may take to lessen the likelihood that the defect will
Once a recall is initiated, can I take independent legal action for injuries I
may have suffered?
Yes. The law specifically states that the recall remedies are in addition to
other available legal remedies. To determine specific State law remedies, you
should consult a lawyer, your State attorney general, or your local district
Where can I find additional resources on recalls and other vehicle safety
Both the Hotline and the agency’s www.safercar.gov Web site are designed to make
it faster and easier for you to file a safety-related complaint with NHTSA.
However, both also serve as important sources of information about recalled
vehicles, recalled equipment such as child safety seats, and ongoing safety
defect investigations. In addition, the Hotline and www.safercar.gov can provide
you with updated NHTSA 5-star crash test results for both new and used vehicles,
information about safety bulletins, advice about which new vehicles are equipped
with side air bags and/or electronic stability control, and a variety of other
vehicle safety information.